Community mourns loss of Jim Swonk, master of reaching across the political aisle

If you knew anything at all about local politics or the University of Michigan, you probably knew Jim Swonk.

The Brighton resident, who died Aug. 25, surrounded by family and friends singing “Hail to the Victors,” was as dedicated to social and political activism as he was to his beloved U-M.

I first became acquainted with Swonk when I was at the local newspaper. Swonk, a Democrat, was a frequent writer of letters to the editor on mostly political topics, letters that took barely a wave of the editor’s wand to make it into the paper.

As well as being a backbone of Democratic politics in the community, Swonk helped found Voter’s Voice of Livingston County, an interesting, bipartisan organization with a mission ill fitting with today’s pugilistic political atmosphere. Voter’s Voice aims to be a big-tent, respectful, centrist venue for political activity outside the traditional party structure.

“Jim was a passionate Democrat who was able to work across the aisle with Republicans in organizations such as Voter’s Voice, even as the nation became increasingly polarized,” said Judy Daubenmier, chairperson of the Livingston County Democrats.

What’s interesting is that Voter’s Voice brought together Swonk, a Democratic activist, and Judie Scranton, a Republican, after the two faced off for the 66th District state House seat in 2000, a seat the Scranton held from 1996-2002.

Swonk and Scranton worked together for years on bipartisan political issues, as well as candidate forums for primary and general elections.

“I will always be grateful for Jim’s friendship,” Scranton said.

Swonk also ran for the 22nd District state Senate seat in 2002, but lost to state Sen. Valde Garcia.

When the Livingston County League of Women Voters dissolved and there was no organization to put together candidate forums, I picked up the ball on behalf of the local newspaper. After the newsroom guttings by Gannett, the forums eventually fell to the wayside; Voter’s Voice then picked up the ball.

“Jim was a key player in making sure Voter’s Voice stepped into the breach, and provided the opportunity for voters to compare candidates in a live forum,” Daubenmier said.

This year’s primary forum was sponsored by Voter’s Voice; The League of Women Voters; the Brighton, Hartland and Howell chambers of commerce; WHMI; and The Livingston Post.

“I have worked for years with Jim on candidate forums,” said Pam McConeghy of the Brighton chamber. “He was a dedicated American, and someone I admired; he always brought professionalism and integrity to the table.”

“He was always a gentleman, always tactful, and always respectful of others,” Daubenmier said.

Swonk was also always on the lookout for positive, constructive approaches to political controversies. Take for example when, in October 2007, controversial conservative commentator and author Ann Coulter spoke as part of the Cleary University Economic Club Luncheon Series, an appearance for which she was reportedly paid $30,000, plus expenses.

There was much hand-wringing on the part of some who felt Coulter’s appearance would contribute to Livingston County’s undeserved reputation as a hotbed of intolerance. There was talk of protests at the event.

Swonk had another idea, bringing together the Community Unitarian Universalists in Brighton and Voter’s Voice to organize an event for later on the same day as Coulter’s speech to raise money for charity. “Counter Coulter,” was held at the Howell Opera House, featuring a speaker on the health care crisis in America, with admission being whatever the approximately 150 in attendance would contribute.

The event reportedly raised $1,500 that was donated to the VINA Community Dental Clinic, which was under construction at the time.

Swonk also served on the Livingston County Board of Canvassers, and helped the Democratic Party train poll challengers to monitor the conduct of elections every two years.

“He was deeply committed to protecting the integrity of our election system here in Livingston County,” Daubenmier said.

Swonk was a driving force behind the University of Michigan Club of Livingston County, an organization not just for alumni, but for anyone interested in promoting and supporting U-M. The organization holds membership events and works to raise money for scholarships.

He and his wife, Joanne, were also charter members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brighton.

An engineer by profession, Swonk worked at Ford and GM before his retirement.

He is survived by his wife, Joanne; his daughters, Sharyn Ceru and Diane Swonk; and two grandchildren. His family will celebrate his life on Sept. 8 at what would have been his 80th birthday party. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations in his name for scholarships to the Engineering School at the University of Michigan.

You can read his obituary by clicking here.

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Journalist Maria Stuart lives in Howell. She worked at The Livingston County Press/Livingston County Daily Press & Argus as reporter, editor and managing editor from 1990-2009. She is often spotted holding court at Uptown Coffeehouse.