Don Sweitzer picks winners

Posted 9/28/23

He just may be the most important Rhode Island political figure you don’t know.

When Democrat candidates up and down the ballot stick their toe in the water to figure out if they have a …

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Don Sweitzer picks winners


He just may be the most important Rhode Island political figure you don’t know.

When Democrat candidates up and down the ballot stick their toe in the water to figure out if they have a shot at winning a particular race, he’s usually either the first or second call that they make.

The list of his winning candidates is so vast (not only here in Rhode Island but literally across the country) that he joked to me recently, “I wish I could pick horses as well as candidates!”

Don Sweitzer is no stranger to virtually every level of Rhode Island business, government, and politics.   He retired a few years ago as Chairman of the Board of IGT in Providence, after a long and successful career spanning decades.

Born in Buffalo, New York to Robert (a railroad brakeman who rose to the level of Superintendent) and Elizabeth (a homemaker who was very active in the church), Don, and his sisters Marjorie, Eileen and brother Bob would move to Albany where Don attended the Christian Brothers Academy (a military school) and later Siena College in Loudonville, New York, which is north of Albany.

Don, who was very much into the social causes of the 70s, would drop out of college during his sophomore year to join the Vietnam era’s higher calling (whatever that was and who could remember anyway).

Don had a little freedom and leisure for about a week until his father “got me out of bed, took me to the railroad and signed me up!”

 His career at the railroad started as a humble timekeeper and dispatcher.

He did this for about seven years, working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift, six days a week, having only Thursday nights off.

He got the political bug during this period and decided to run for union office as “Local Chairman” of Local 861 of the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks.

It wasn’t an easy election, Don ran against the incumbent, winning by 42 votes.

Not satisfied with union politics, he decided to try his hand at local politics and ran for Town Council in East Greenbush, New York at the young age of 26.

Don won by 17 votes, earning the affectionate nickname of “Landslide Sweitzer”.

About a year later, his union leadership in Washington called to commend him for the job he was doing at the local level, (including not running against a beloved old-time union boss), which was followed by a call from International President Fred J. Kroll, asking if he would be interested in becoming the union’s legislative director, having responsibility for all legislation in the both the federal government as well as state governments.

Don jumped at the chance and moved to Washington, DC in 1978, commuting back and forth to NY so that he could see his family.

His office was located at the AFL-CIO building across from the White House.   A heady experience to be sure.

The next couple years were a blur of activity, as this was the time that Congress created Conrail, short for the Consolidated Rail Corporation, which also led to the creation of Amtrak.

His job was “to protect our employees.”

 His next career move was to work on the campaign of Senator Ted Kennedy, whom his union endorsed for President over then incumbent President Carter.

Don took a leave of absence from his union duties to work on the campaign.

He shortly rose to the position of Labor Coordinator for the campaign.

 He would then work his way up the political ladder to work on campaigns for Congressman Jim Florio of New Jersey, Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio and the Presidential campaign of former Vice President Walter Mondale.

President Reagan would win the election and Don was out of a job.

He was then asked to be the Democratic Party’s National Finance Director.

He would serve in the position for four years, making political and business contacts across the nation.

That led to a position in the private sector, joining the then powerhouse political firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, where he would stay for three years, leaving to work for the longshot bid of Governor Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign.   Don had become very friendly with the then Governor over the years.

President Clinton was of course elected, and Don was asked to take the position he always wanted – Political Director of the Democratic National Committee.

He would serve for two years and then decided to put the pressure aside and open his own consulting firm.

One of his early clients was GTECH of Rhode Island.

He would soon be offered a full-time position at GTECH (Senior Vice President of Global Government Relations) and decided to take it, starting on July 1, 1998, figuring he’d stay on for a couple of years.

On January 1, 2009, however, he was appointed Chairman of the Board.  He was told that he didn’t have to work full time in the position.  He would be their “Outward Ambassador”.

Fat chance.   He lived on a plane traveling to more countries than you could imagine.

Now that he is really “retired”, (he is still a consultant to now IGT – kind of like that Shell answer man), he gets to spend more time at his Warwick home with his wife Sheri, and frequently visits his four children, William, Jennifer, Matthew, and “Lizie” (and their 9 grandchildren) who are scattered across the country.

But his time is also filled with volunteer activities and politics (big surprise).

For instance, he was one of the first to endorse former Mayor James Diossa in his successful bid to become the State’s General Treasurer, ultimately chairing his Transition Team.

He urged former Treasurer Seth Magaziner to run for the open Congressional seat created by the retirement of former Congressman Jim Langevin and was an early supporter (and promoter) of Gabe Amo, who Don knew for years (he was a classmate of his daughter), urging him to run for the open Congressional seat created by the resignation of Congressman Cicilline.

He was also an old friend and supporter of former Governor Gina Raimondo, dating back to her early years as General Treasurer, right through her tenure as Governor.

As a matter of fact, when Governor Raimondo was chosen as Chair of the Democratic Governors Association, she tapped Don as Treasurer of the Association.

These day Don also continues his volunteer activities.

He remains on the Board of the International Foundation of Electoral Systems (where he served as Chair for a period) which is an international organization that fosters free and fair elections around the world, and keeps his passion for horses alive, investing in thoroughbred horses and is a partner in Donegal Stables.

Don, as you have read, is an interesting guy.

From a trainman in New York to a chairman at IGT in Rhode Island.

He says he is retired but I know better.

There will always be the next election.

The phone will never stop ringing.

I just wish my friend was on my (Republican) side.


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