Sweeney talks of loss, healing
Former congressman faced reality — and didn’t like what he saw
By CAROL DEMARE Staff Writer
Published 12:00 a.m., Sunday, March 6, 2011
ALBANY — John Sweeney says he had his last drink on April 6, 2009. Now, almost two years into sobriety, the once-rising Republican star on Capitol Hill talked freely about the damage caused by his drinking — to his children, his career and himself.
The 55-year-old father of four sheds no tears as he faces the reality that everything he got he deserved.
“Losing a seat in Congress wasn’t my biggest loss,” the four-term representative of the 20th District, first elected in 1998, said Friday. “It was the loss of myself and the loss of everything that went with it, the harm and hurt I created for people around me who I love and love me. At the end of the day, in a very ironic way, it’s what saved me,” he said. “You decide to live or die. What made me want to live was my kids.”
Sweeney lost his seat in 2006 to Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat and now a U.S. senator. The end of his political career — he said he has no desire to seek office again — came after it was reported that State Police responded to a 911 call at Sweeney’s Clifton Park residence for a domestic dispute between him and his wife, Gayle. Both had been drinking, according to the police report. The couple divorced in 2007. “I drank a lot for years, since childhood” in Lansingburgh, Sweeney said. “It’s a disease.”
“Over the period of my life, there were consequences, bad things would happen, and I would always blow it off to something else,” Sweeney said. “I’ve come to the realization alcohol was always involved, and when you have that kind of awakening, it helps in recovery.”
A dark moment came during the 16 nights he was locked up for DWI last April in Saratoga County Jail. He listened as inmates talked about how they would party once they were freed, getting a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a girl.
Sweeney recalled thinking “it sounded good to me,” even though he hadn’t had a drink in a year since the day after his arrest by troopers on Route 9 in Clifton Park for doing 59 mph in a 40 mph zone.
Within a few months, hope arrived in the form of the Rev. Peter Young, the quintessential street priest who nearly four decades ago successfully lobbied state legislators to remove public intoxication from the state’s criminal laws on grounds that people should be treated and not locked up.
Sweeney’s probation officer called Young and asked if he would help Sweeney. Young’s statewide organization, Peter Young — Housing, Industries & Treatment, runs programs for some 3,500 people. They may be addicted to alcohol or drugs. Some are poor or homeless, including veterans. Others have trouble with the law.
Not only was Young receptive — “Sure, we work with anyone who has an addiction problem,” he said — but he hired Sweeney as a paid staffer.
Sweeney began in July as Young’s compliance attorney at the priest’s Eagle Street office. He is responsible for “making sure we dot the I’s and cross the T’s” for federal and state funding and grants, said Young, who’s been running programs for 53 years. “John is keeping us honest.”
Sweeney, at times serene, considers himself a different person, “substantially so,” he said, and reluctantly agreed to the interview. “Maybe, I can be a positive example for people who are struggling.”
While he was drinking, he met a young woman who worked in a bank. They live together, intend to marry, and have a 51/2-month-old daughter. Also with them are the 29-year-old woman’s two girls, 10 and 7.
Sweeney has three adult children — two daughters and a son — with his first wife, Betty Sweeney of Schaghticoke, his childhood sweetheart.
“The progression of my illness probably began around 2003,” but he said it never affected his work in Washington, where President George W. Bush dubbed him “Congressman Kick-Ass” for his aggressive style. “I was a highly functional alcoholic,” Sweeney said. “I would get it done.” But the booze “affected my spirituality and my sense of myself.”
It was the late 1990s and his career was taking off “when people talked to me about my drinking.” He felt he could handle anything, even though a doctor had warned him his liver was bad. He said he quit for nearly a year, but on a trip out of the country with friends began drinking again. “When I lost in 2006, I was as depressed as I’d ever been, but I was detached from myself,” he said. “I looked at it as being a victim.”
His first DWI arrest came in 2007. Two years later, he was charged with felony DWI, to which he pleaded to a misdemeanor count and served time but kept his law license. A felony conviction would have stripped him of that license. He continues to practice law on the side.
It was after the second arrest that a “moment of clarity” came, and now, with a sense of self-worth, he said he needs to make amends to his kids.
For more than three decades, beginning in the 1980s when he ran Rensselaer County’s STOP DWI, Sweeney had interacted, off and on, with Young. Later, under Gov. George Pataki, Sweeney was state labor commissioner and Young sought help in funding and creating jobs. The two often clashed, Young recalled.
“Father Young’s reputation speaks for itself,” Sweeney said during an interview on Eagle Street. “There is no better authority to go to and understand what’s happening out in the world than Peter Young. When Peter Young came and talked to me, first about my recovery, and then about what I needed to continue going forward, it was a big part of getting me back on my feet.”
Sweeney, who attended Hudson Valley Community College, Russell Sage College and Western New England School of Law, also credits his attorney, E. Stewart Jones, with helping “me survive this far and getting to the place where I’m at.”
Sweeney has two years left on his three years of probation and 150 hours more of community service out of 300 hours. Toughest of all, he hasn’t had a driver’s license in two years. “I don’t resent any of that stuff,” he said. “I earned it.”
Reach DeMare at 454-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.