Paradox Marks Swoap Portrait in Key State Job as Health Chief

Times Staff Writer

Being California’s health and welfare secretary can be a thankless, one-way ticket to bureaucratic obscurity.

However, the present occupant of that $83,000-a-year post, David B. Swoap, has nevertheless emerged as one of the most powerful and influential officials in Gov. George Deukmejian’s Administration. He also is one of the most controversial.

Swoap played a crucial role in negotiating a major welfare reform plan that would force many welfare recipients to take public service jobs in exchange for benefits. The plan was approved by the Legislature and sent to the governor early Saturday morning.

He also is the author of the Administration’s controversial proposal to create a new department to clean up and monitor hazardous wastes. That plan failed to win approval in the Legislature.

Offers a Paradox

A study in paradox, Swoap is a consummate politician who can attract a score of lobbyists to a $500-a-plate breakfast fund-raiser for a Republican candidate, but who insists that he finds politicking so uncomfortable that he would never run for office.


Some call him obstinate because of his refusal to compromise on issues such as turning over responsibility for health programs to local government. Yet, he also has proven to be a masterful negotiator, winning broad support for controversial welfare reforms that many had predicted were doomed politically.

His list of heroes includes the obvious Republican political figures--Ronald Reagan and George Deukmejian, both of whom have appointed him to high office--but also includes Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa and an obscure missionary who established a program for street children in Ethiopia.

He is a conservative riding herd on the products of decades of liberal legislation, programs that include welfare, Medi-Cal, public health, aging and unemployment benefits.

Few people in government seem to be neutral about Swoap. He is mocked and admired, feared and respected, hated and beloved.

To some, he is an idealist; to others, an ideologue.

Put His Stamp on It

Critics and enthusiasts alike agree, however, that Swoap has succeeded in doing what none of his predecessors at the Health and Welfare Agency has done: He has taken control of the state’s largest bureaucracy and put his own stamp upon it.

And that is no mean feat.

If the Health and Welfare Agency, with its 11 departments, $17.7-billion budget and 37,000 employees, were a private company, it would be one of the largest in the United States--just behind U.S. Steel and Chrysler Corp. in spending.

Despite his importance in the nation’s most populous state, Swoap has not become a public personality.

That is partly because of his soft-spoken, mild-mannered personal style--more like a theology professor’s than a politician’s. His vocabulary is that of a technocrat, not a stump speaker.

First impressions are deceiving, however.

He is a man of strong opinions.

His views on abortion are passionate.

“People talk about giving mothers or fathers a choice (on abortion),” Swoap said. “I want to see the unborn child given a choice, and I think the unborn child would choose to live. . . . We are at a crossroads in society where it is easier or more convenient to end life than protect it.”

For more than a year, he has been considering ways to cut off family planning funds to clinics that also provide abortions, according to documents obtained by The Times.

It was Swoap who replaced a statewide family planning advisory group with an entirely new panel that included several strong abortion opponents, including Royal Blue, head of California’s Moral Majority.

Yet Swoap insists that he eschews the zealots of the anti-abortion movement who, he lamented, sometimes forget their manners as well as the need for government officials to carry out the law.

Swoap is also committed to moving health and welfare programs, such as family planning, out of the state bureaucracy to smaller units of government.

“If I had my real druthers, I’d push them back to the neighborhood level,” Swoap said. “I think the county of Los Angeles is big government, and I’ve said that to (Supervisors) Mike Antonovich and Pete Schabarum.”

Yet his efforts to turn over several public health programs to the counties met with strong opposition from groups that feared that conservative county supervisors might gut them.

“They want to eliminate every protection for the beneficiaries of those programs,” complained Peter Schilla, a Sacramento lobbyist for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

‘Resource Redirection’

Swoap believes that government can be pared back without doing any real harm to the people it serves. His goal, he explained, is “resource redirection, to target benefits to people who are legitimately needy.”

Thus, as a new round of personnel cuts went into effect with the new budget year in July, middle-level managers were already being asked to identify even more positions that can be eliminated, according to one such official who has been asked to cut his staff an additional 20%.

One Democratic legislator complained that Swoap has moved ruthlessly ahead to carry out his conservative agenda, “no matter what the programs would do or how they would work.”

But acknowledging Swoap’s influence, the same lawmaker asked that his comments not be attributed to him, “because they would damage my ability to work with Swoap.”

Difficult to Manage

A former federal official who helped orchestrate the 1981 cuts that dropped thousands from the nation’s welfare rolls, Swoap returned to California in 1983 to take the reins of an agency that he says is as difficult to manage “as an 800-pound gorilla.”

Although he has spent most of his adult life working for government, the 48-year-old Swoap has probably done more than any state official to cut back the size of the state bureaucracy. His agency has eliminated 4,000 state budgeted positions--about 10% of its total work force.

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Denison University in Ohio, Swoap dropped out of Stanford University Law School because he found it “dry,” after his first exposure to the intricacies of government.

He began working in the Legislature in 1962 as an analyst and wound up as an aide to then-Senate President Pro Tem Howard Way (R-Exeter). He then moved to the executive branch, where he became state welfare director in 1973 under Ronald Reagan.

When Reagan left office, Swoap moved to Washington and worked on Republican staffs in the House and Senate and as an aide to Sen. William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.).

“He really is an ideologue . . . on some of these issues, but the nicest guy you’d want to know in a social setting,” said one of his co-workers from that period. “But in a work setting, he is very hard-line and very tough.”

Agency Undersecretary

He became undersecretary of Health and Human Services when Reagan became President and was lured back to California by the prospect of heading the largest of the state agencies.

“We wanted Dave Swoap from Day 1, both of us, the governor and myself,” said Deukmejian’s chief of staff, Steven A. Merksamer.

Merksamer praised Swoap’s performance, without qualification.

“He’s done an excellent job of cutting the budget, where it was appropriate to cut, and reducing personnel, where it was appropriate to do so,” Merksamer said.

If Swoap had got his way, he would have cut even more. He confirmed in an interview that the state Department of Finance, which has the reputation of wielding a sharp budget knife of its own, successfully blocked several of Swoap’s budget-cutting proposals with the argument that they went too far.

He is regarded by some as ruthlessly ambitious--someone who would jump at the chance to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Devoted to Charity

Yet he said in an interview that his goal in life is to head an international relief agency, and he is devoted to the expansion of a worldwide charity that provides stable homes to orphan children.

“I’ve always thought that life shouldn’t be a matter of waves washing you up on whatever sandy beach they might carry you to,” he said. “But I’ve caught a lot of waves.”

One of those waves was his 1981 appointment as undersecretary of health and human services. The job came along at a time when Swoap had decided to become a minister and had been accepted to the Princeton Theological Seminary. An elder in the Presbyterian Church, he might still enter the ministry one day, he said.

A lifelong bachelor, he said he once was close to marriage but the demands of his career ended those plans.

Swoap says he eventually expects to leave government for a while to earn enough money to allow him to pursue his interests in aiding the underdeveloped world. He faults Americans for their lack of concern about the problems of other nations.

Look at Challenges

“All the way from the devotees of an Orange County country club to a guy with a beer in front of the TV set, it is incumbent on all of us to take a look at the challenges facing the world,” he said.

Swoap has been praised even by his adversaries as a person of deep principles.

He tells of serving as a page in the Michigan Legislature when he was in high school and being ordered to pick up a bottle of liquor for a legislator. Instead, he put a bottle of mucilage into a sack and left it on the intemperate legislator’s desk.

Some lawmakers in California contend that he is hopelessly obstinate, unwilling to compromise on important issues. Yet, his personal rapport with key legislators helped win support for a compromise welfare reform that would require many recipients to work for their benefits.

One of those legislators, Sen. Bill Greene (D-Los Angeles), has known Swoap since the two began their careers on the Legislature’s staff in the 1960s.

“I don’t see how a person as intelligent as he is and who thinks as clearly as he does and is as studious as he is can end up so damn conservative,” the liberal legislator said.

‘Conservative by Nature’

Swoap admits to being “a conservative by nature,” but he denied allegations that he is an unbending extremist.

“People mistake my strong views on certain precepts with an archconservative or doctrinaire point of view,” he said. “It is a gross misunderstanding of who I am. Mine is a classical liberal point of view. . . . I insist on a reasoned, carefully thought through position, not a caricature, knee-jerk position.”

Swoap pointed out that total spending on health and welfare programs has continued to grow since the Deukmejian Administration took office in 1983--but at a slower rate than the rest of government. It has done so with significantly fewer employees, although Swoap conceded that many of the employee reductions are the result of a changing economy--for example, the drop in the need for staff to administer unemployment insurance.

However, a number of present and former state officials, including several who agree with Swoap’s overall goals, contended that it is impossible to make the deep staff cuts that the Health and Welfare Agency has been attempting without damaging programs.

A former health official, who like many of those interviewed asked not to be quoted by name, said early cuts ordered by Swoap in health programs were probably needed to help rescue the state from its financial crisis in 1983.

“There is a need at times to bite the bullet (and cut spending and staff),” he said. “But if they say, ‘We did all of this and everything is better,’ don’t believe it.”

Supports Experiments

At the same time the agency was cutting deeply into health programs designed to reduce the effects of strokes, heart disease and cancer, Swoap and Deukmejian were personally approving public spending for experimental medical procedures in a handful of cases involving hopelessly ill children.

“It’s an interesting dichotomy at a time when there was an intense search for funds,” another former health official said. Programs that provide medical care to pregnant women were being cut without any immediate health effects, he said, but could “mean more dead babies a little later on.”

Swoap’s management team within the Health and Welfare Agency has a reputation of barking at the heels of the bureaucrats below, of threatening workers with transfers and dismissals if they do not perform as expected.

Among themselves, some of those bureaucrats jokingly call key members of the Swoap team “visitors,” a reference to the television series “V” in which reptilian creatures hiding beneath human skin try to bring the Earth under their dominion.

Other present and former state officials compared Swoap’s top aides to Mack trucks--once in high gear, they stop for no one.

But one critic, still in government, expressed begrudging admiration for Swoap: “I have to think that what Swoap has done is really quite remarkable. He has put his personal imprint on the agency and on the departments. Clearly he is a very strong individual who has taken control.”

Agency Undersecretary James S. Stockdale, a longtime conservative political operative, serves as Swoap’s gatekeeper and alter ego. More than Swoap, he wears his politics on his sleeve. He was the one who supplied hundreds of horns to the Reagan delegates on the floor of the 1976 Republican National Convention. The result was a floor demonstration that showed the depth of Reagan’s support, even though the party nominated Gerald R. Ford.

“You give delegates horns to blow through and you know they’ll blow,” said Stockdale, who worked with Swoap at Health and Human Services and then followed him to California.

“We are not attacking the welfare state,” Stockdale explained. “We are marshaling materials to the areas of greatest need, to attack those problems rather than using a shotgun approach. While it doesn’t sound sexy or dramatic, I suspect that years from now, people will study this.”

Meticulously Organized

Swoap himself is a meticulously organized man who prides himself justifiably on a detailed knowledge of many of the programs he is responsible for.

As his staff has come to learn, he has a sharp eye for the most minute of errors--for misspellings and typos, a meticulousness developed 30 years ago, when he worked summers as a copy reader for a title insurance company.

To accuse Swoap of being sloppy about details is to wound him. Angered by criticism that he made errors in drafting the Administration’s plan to create a new Department of Waste Management to clean up toxic wastes, Swoap responded that the plan he developed for the governor was “as complete a package and as thorough as possible, that’s what I specialize in.”

Some say that Swoap is fastidious to a fault, that he and his immediate staff spend so much time scrutinizing every proposal that program managers are paralyzed. One middle-level manager described the result as “institutional gridlock.”

One former Administration appointee complained of Swoap’s penchant for detail and his “pyramid style of administration, with all power at the top. It’s a system that keeps lower levels from making independent decisions,”

‘Chain of Command’

Departments within the agency do not release documents or make critical decisions without approval from the top.

“I have made it a clear but not unreasonable expectation that everything has to be through a chain of command,” Swoap said.

The most important issues, such as revamping welfare and health crises, take precedence in this system. As a result, Merksamer has no complaints about Swoap’s management style.

However, the issues of lesser importance may suffer.

“There is an area below crisis and above the humdrum, where you’d like to go faster,” said a former health official, who agreed with others who complain that some issues simply get lost in the channels and bayous of Swoap’s bureaucracy. “We lost opportunities for doing things that Dave just couldn’t get around to.”

The logjam at the Health and Welfare Agency itself became a public issue earlier this year, when the legislative analyst’s office pointed to a list of 16 health reports required under state law that were months or, even years, past due.

Controversial Issues Blamed

Some Deukmejian loyalists blame Swoap for raising controversial issues, such as abortion, that have created problems for the Administration.

“The governor’s personal expertise is not in health and welfare,” a former Administration official said. “His immediate staff’s expertise is not in health and welfare.”

But while he may have a free hand in many areas, he is the kind of team player that he expects his own staff to be.

“In every case, he’s carried out, he will carry out the policies and priorities as set by the governor and the rest of us in the governor’s office, so it frankly doesn’t matter (whether Swoap and the governor always see eye to eye),” Merksamer said.

But according to one lobbyist on health issues, Swoap’s expertise and influence are so vast, that “what happens (in health and welfare) depends on the idiosyncrasies and philosophy of the secretary.”

Said one legislator who has worked closely with Swoap, “He runs a one-man operation essentially . . . he is the department head for everything.”