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Not Sweeney

Establishment Republicans try to pluck a perennial candidate

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There aren't many candidates who will flat out tell a reporter: "Hell, yes, I'm a racist!"

But then, Republican Joe Sweeney isn't like most candidates.

Sweeney, 60, who is making his 11th try for Congress, says most people don't even understand the meaning of the word "racist."

"They don't have any idea," he says. "It's just an emotionally charged little word that they use just to try to practice reverse psychology on us."

Sweeney's own definition, while elusive, appears to include anyone who has a pulse. But he's a straight talker when it comes to his feelings about illegal border crossers.

"I hate Mexicans who come up here illegally," he says. "All this silly nonsensical crap about how they're entitled to come up here and get into our wage system and everything else. They haven't struggled for a damn thing in Mexico. They won't struggle, because they treat one another like a damn bunch of wild monkeys! I call it the vicious circle: the slave and the patron."

Sweeney's inflammatory comments, combined with his perennial candidacies, have left him with the reputation of a crackpot. So it's easy to see why the Republican establishment is unenthusiastic about seeing him as the party's standard-bearer even in a hopeless campaign against freshman Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva in Congressional District 7, where 53 percent of the voters are Democrats, while less than 28 percent are Republicans.

To eliminate Sweeney, real estate investor Lou Muñoz has entered the race. "I thought it important that Republicans have a choice," he says.

Muñoz, 59, says he'd do a better job than Grijalva of representing the average voter in District 7. He supports the Bush administration's tax cuts, the Iraq war, gun rights and defense spending while opposing abortion and an amnesty program for migrant workers now in the country.

"I don't believe in rewarding people for breaking the law," says Muñoz, a Navy vet who served in Vietnam.

Campaign chair Ed Parker sounds like he's on message when he says he's supporting Muñoz because he "felt that it was important that the Republicans had a quality choice for a candidate in District 7."

While he suggests that the freshman Democrat will be at his most vulnerable while seeking his second term, he concedes that the race "is not so much about Grijalva as it is about Sweeney."

To win the primary, Muñoz will have to overcome Sweeney's name ID, which is considerable, simply because he has sought office so many times. Two years ago, in the District 7 GOP primary, Sweeney won Pima, Maricopa, Pinal, Santa Cruz and La Paz counties, and he might have triumphed across the board had the eventual nominee, Ross Hieb, not had a political base in Yuma County, which he won overwhelmingly.

Sweeney has a single overwhelming campaign issue: illegal immigration. He's convinced that illegal aliens are entering the country and stealing identities to commit crimes, and that they are determined to vote in American elections.

"These people come up, and they know how to play the system," Sweeney says. "You have to have a criminal mind to keep up with this nonsense."

Sweeney's interest in politics was triggered, he says, back in 1974, "when I was having a hard time trying to keep a roof over my head and a car."

As he tells the story, he got a gig milking cows out at a local dairy, but a few days after he started, he was laid off because the company was going to employ illegal entrants who would work for a buck an hour.

So Sweeney ran his first campaign as a Democrat for the Arizona House of Representatives, but he says the deck was stacked against him because he didn't have a Spanish surname in his heavily Hispanic district.

Sweeney's next stop was the UA law school, where he failed to gain admission. But Sweeney wasn't willing to give up on his dream--"I said, I'll be damned if I'll put up with that nonsense"--so in 1978, he started his own institution, the Alexander Hamilton Evening Law School, and, subsequently, a theology school.

"We do theology on Mondays and Thursdays and law on Tuesdays and Wednesdays," he says, adding that tuition is free for the first month and requires monthly $50 donations for continuing education. "Oh Christ, we've probably had 50, 75, 100 people in the program over the years."

When the schools couldn't get accredited, Sweeney once again demonstrated his initiative by creating his own accrediting agency, the Great Plains School and College. "We're entitled to go out and put these adult college programs together," he says.

Between running his educational institutions and running for Congress, Sweeney says he's got his hands full, especially since his car recently broke down, stalling his campaign. "I've been kind of held up since a week ago last Monday," Sweeney says.

But he remains confident he can beat Grijalva in November, if all the illegal aliens in District 7 are taken off the voter rolls before the election.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Sweeney doesn't think much of the Bush proposal to reform the nation's immigration system.

"I'm trying to run as a Republican and keep some sense of party responsibility," Sweeney says, "but this guy, we wonder whether he's all there sometimes."

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