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Schweiker makes mark as the chief spokesman

Sunday, July 28, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

QUECREEK, Pa. -- In the end, Gov. Mark Schweiker's never-ending optimism paid off.

The governor, serving as the state's front man in the effort to rescue miners trapped 240 feet underground, never wavered, at least publicly, in his insistence that all nine would be saved.

They were.

Gov. Mark Schweiker reacts to the news that all nine miners trapped in Quecreek Mine were confirmed to be alive last night in an air pocket 240 feet underground. (John Beale, Post-Gazette photo)

The plain-speaking folks involved directly and peripherally in the rescue attempt seemed to appreciate the plain-speaking lame-duck governor.

Amid offering solace to the families of the men trapped in Quecreek Mine, Schweiker routinely stopped by the rescue site, trying to give heart to those drilling into the earth to reach the miners.

Encountering two drill workers, muddied and exhausted after 24 hours on the job, Schweiker gave them the key to the hotel room he's been using since he flew in Thursday night.

"I said, 'You look dirty. You need a shower, go get a shower ... and some rest,' " he recalled.

Such encounters helped Schweiker connect with the locals.

"I think people like him here," said Mildred Hartzell, deacon at Sipesville Church of the Brethren, three blocks from the fire hall that has turned into a haven for waiting families.

"From what I understand, people accept him really well."

"You see him out there, a dad talking to a dad," said David Hess, state secretary of environmental protection.

But the Quecreek Mine rescue effort was more than a time to forge a connection between Schweiker and rural Somerset County.

It was the first extended mass-media appearance for the man who has been Pennsylvania's governor for not quite 10 months, a man whose abbreviated time in office will end in January.

Schweiker is an ex-businessman whose political resume included only stints as a township supervisor and county commissioner in suburban Philadelphia before he was elected in 1994 as Tom Ridge's lieutenant governor.

But since arriving here Thursday, the 49-year-old governor has been a constant presence on televisions nationwide.

"Mark Schweiker is no Tom Ridge. Everybody knows that," political analyst Jon Delano said of Schweiker's step into the spotlight. "But he conveys a sincere empathy with the trapped miners. He's genuine and sincere."

And he has had ample opportunity to convey it.

It was the supper-time-television-news feeding frenzy. And in an abandoned supermarket -- the news briefing center for the rescue effort -- TV producers pleaded with gubernatorial spokesman David La Torre for 90-second pieces of Schweiker.

CNN, a few area TV stations, a network feed nearby, all wanted Schweiker live. So he was led through a thicket of television cameras and lights, briefly quizzed -- "How long might it take, governor?" "What's the prognosis, governor?" -- then surrendered to the next questioner.

It was his job, Schweiker said, to bring both encouragement to waiting families and information to the rest of the world.

"The eyes are so big, yearning for information and assessment, depending on you," he said.

The information has been Schweiker's repetition of detail given him by experts as he learned mine rescue on the fly and then, generally flanked by experts, offered that information before the cameras.

Before the army of reporters, he seemed relatively relaxed -- in sport shirt, faded jeans and mud-spattered bucks, nearly a lift from an L.L. Bean catalog.

But he did not show the focus and commanding stage presence of Ridge, his predecessor.

"I've heard two reactions -- one, that he's rambling and disjointed," Delano said. "The other reaction is that he's very empathetic."

Sixteen days before Ridge left as governor to become U.S. Homeland Security director, Schweiker was in Somerset County to address another period of angst -- the terrorist-related crash of Flight 93 near Shanksville, 11 miles southeast of Quecreek.

Then, he was almost a bit player --a lieutenant governor, not commanding the attention of others who passed through, such as Attorney General John Ashcroft and first lady Laura Bush.

And in that appearance, before reporters, Schweiker dissolved into tears, repeating, "I wish we could have done more. ... It was so final."

This time, Somerset County saw a Schweiker remaining dry-eyed, almost upbeat, offering optimism.

"Perhaps the difference now is that we have the opportunity to rescue people," he said. "After Sept. 11, we didn't."

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