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Kirbyville native an unusal option in governor's race

October 18, 2004
By: Ben Welsh
State Capital Bureau

Kirbyville, Mo. - According to the 2000 Census, 97.6 percent of a Americans have telephone access at home.

John Swenson, the Libertarian candidate for governor, is not one of them.

A native of Kirbyville -- a small town nestled in the hills near Branson in rural southwest Missouri -- Swenson said he isn't about to pay for something he doesn't use.

However, if the unthinkable happens this November, that may change.

"If I'm made governor, I'll probably have to use a phone," he said in an interview at his home.

In September, Swenson, 64, defeated a party rival in the primary election to become the Libertarian Party's gubernatorial nominee -- as Swenson was in 2000.

Swenson missed the party's convention, but still won with 53.7 percent of the nearly 4,000 votes cast.

"That upset some people," Libertarian Party Chairman Greg Tlapek said. "I like John, but others could have represented us better to more people."

Tlapek said he hasn't spoken with the reclusive Swenson in more than a month.

"He's pretty Libertarian, I think," Tlapek said. "He's a nice enough guy, but he's definitely unconventional."

When interviewed at his home, a sparsely decorated trailer set on a ragged gravel-strewn lot bordered by a busy state highway and a rock quarry, Swenson promised to repeal the state income tax and restore the gold standard.

"I don't exactly know how to put it into words, but the government should stay the hell out of our business," Swenson said. "Some things I'd like to get across. Right now, I'm not well organized."

Known for his flamboyant behavior at candidate forums and debates, Swenson is not afraid to speak his mind.

"I'm running so I can speak my onions," he said. "I've always wanted to be a big animal trainer -- elephants and jackasses."

Recently, the Libertarian candidate for lieutenant governor, Mike Ferguson, made news when he said he was voting for the Republican nominee Matt Blunt instead of Swenson.

"He's an embarrassment to our party," Ferguson said. "He has not basic understanding of the issues, much less a working knowledge."

Ferguson said he first met Swenson at a Missouri Press Association forum earlier this year and was disgusted by what he saw as grandstanding and a lack of respect for the other candidates.

"He does not represent the party. I don't know why he's running for office. He seems to be more of a gadfly than anything," Ferguson said. "Not only does he have no message, he detracts from our message."

Swenson said he can't understand why Ferguson would speak against his someone in his own party.

"That's quite a kick in the pants," said Swenson, pausing to spit tobacco into an empty can. "I'm not trying to hurt the party. They're doing their thing and I'm doing mine."

Swenson was born on July 4, 1940 in Waukon, Iowa. His family moved to Missouri when he was a child and after high school he spent four years in the Navy. Following his time in the service he worked in New Burling, Wisc., as a traveling salesman for 17 years before moving after a messy divorce.

After six months in Oklahoma City working at a factory that manufactured oil valves, Swenson moved back to Branson to start his own business steam washing engines.

"Like the fellow aid, I bought myself my own job," Swenson said.

He bounced around several jobs and got his second divorce before retiring to a trailer on his parent's homestead in Kirbyville after his oldest son died of a heart ailment in 1996.

"It tore my guts out," Swenson said. He said he has good relations with his other three children -- all in their thirties.

Swenson took his first shot at politics when he made a run for the Republican nomination for governor in the 1996 election. That attempt failed, but he returned with a successful bid for the Libertarian slot in 2000. In the subsequent general election, however, Swenson polled just 0.5 percent of the votes cast.

Ferguson attributes Swenson's primary success to the party's inability to field a competent candidate to oppose him. Swenson isn't so sure.

"I don't know," he said. "It's just like throwing the dice."

Most days, Swenson grabs lunch at nearby Dillon's Pub, a dimly lit pool hall and restaurant with a local crowd, friendly staff, cigarette machine, classic rock jukebox and menu that boasts 20 varieties of hamburgers grilled to "allow the burger to simmer in its own natural juices."

The staff said he comes in everyday around 11 a.m. with his friend Ida and orders the same meal, a plain large hamburger.

"They call it 'The Governor'," Swenson said. "They like to give me the raspberries."

At a time when most candidates for statewide office are out on the road every day campaigning for votes, Swenson's plans were more modest.

"I'm filling out a lot of questionnaires and going to meetings," he said. "I've got a place over at Farmington, a couple of things I was going to attend but they've been canceled."

His neighbor and tenant, Brian Larson, said that after closely examining the two major candidates he was convinced his landlord is the man for the job.

"He's got to be better than the rest," Larson said. "He's an alright guy."