On April 6, attorney John Sweeney plans to mark four years of sobriety, without dwelling on the fact that years of hard drinking took him from the halls of Congress to the Saratoga County Jail, where he served 16 days for drunken driving.
But the man once dubbed "Congressman Kickass" by President George W. Bush is back in the community, practicing law, doing pro bono work with homeless veterans and indigent clients, talking to Drug Court graduates, enjoying his seven children, maintaining a small solo practice, doing some political consulting and preparing to host a daily talk radio show starting Feb. 11 on Albany station WGDJ, 1300 AM.
Sweeney, 57, was, ironically, Rensselaer County's STOP-DWI coordinator in the late 1980s when, well into his 30s and with two young children, he decided to attend law school. He enrolled in the Western New England School of Law because it was within commuting distance of his home in Rensselaer County and had a night program, was admitted in 1990 and embarked on a soaring career.
A longtime Republican political operative, Sweeney was a key part of the state GOP juggernaut of the early 1990s, when the party took over the New York City mayoralty with the election of Rudolph Giuliani, brought George Pataki into the governor's mansion, held a New York U.S. Senate seat with Alfonse D'Amato and captured the state attorney general's office with Dennis Vacco.
Sweeney served as executive director and chief counsel to the state Republican Committee, was appointed Pataki's deputy chief of staff and then state labor commissioner. In 1998, he won the first of four terms in Congress.
It all came crashing down in 2006 when Sweeney became embroiled in a series of embarrassing events, all of them involving alcohol, and lost a 2006 reelection bid to now U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Q: You decided to become an attorney while working in local government. What inspired you to go to law school at that point? Were there any particular role models?
A: I thought going to law school would give me a greater sense of accomplishment in my life, and a sense of worth. I was already in public service and it made sense to me that this was the way that I could really maximize the effort to serve. As a practical matter, the one guy who probably had the most direct impact on me going to law school was [now deceased state Supreme Court and then Northern District U.S. Judge Con] 'Gus' Cholakis.
I'd go to his office for a little while on Saturday mornings and then we'd go over to the Eldorado [restaurant] in Troy with several other local judges [including Appellate Division, Third Department, Presiding Justice Franklin Mahoney and Associate Justice John Casey, both of whom, like Sweeney and Cholakis, lived in Rensselaer County], and they would talk the law. That was certainly inspirational.
For a couple of years, I had talked about law school, but I had two little babies. Gus knew of my interest in law school, but I certainly couldn't leave my job. One Saturday, he put me in a car and drove me over to Western New England School of Law and had me register. I remember feeling overwhelmed at times in law school and I'd go see Gus and he'd say things like, 'Look around the room. Consider yourself to be as good as half the people in the room and if that's the case you are going to get through this.' He was a sweet man and a great, great human being. He had a humility that I think only now I fully understand.