From Jazz Drummer to Lobbyist — and Beyond: Owen Sweeney (’97)
April 3, 2023
After only three years working at the Chamber of Commerce in Lander, Wyoming, Owen Sweeney (’97) has joined the Board of Directors for the State Chamber of Commerce, at the behest of professional peers across God’s country. “It was a humbling honor to be asked,” laughs Mr. Sweeney, “because I still consider myself to be very much a newbie at this!”
This is not Mr. Sweeney’s first time meeting swift success as a “newbie.” Between being an amateur jazz drummer and managing a Caribbean radio station to working in Catholic liberal education and lobbying both in state capitals and Washington, D.C., he has worn many hats with panache.
Growing up in New Jersey, he says, “I was a typical punk who practiced his faith, but not very well.” God changed that, but in a roundabout way. Mr. Sweeney planned to attend music school in Boston after working through his prerequisites at a local college, but he had a change of heart after spending seven months in the Caribbean, where he ran a broadcast station for a radio entrepreneur from his parish.
“It was an incredible experience,” Mr. Sweeney recalls. But it was not easy, and he soon found himself grappling with profound isolation. “I was at Mass on the beautiful island of St. Croix, and I realized God was saying, ‘I brought you here so that you would feel this loneliness and turn back to Me,’” he recalls. Suitably chastened, he soon returned to New Jersey to rethink his priorities.
“I had been a crazy long-haired drummer,” Mr. Sweeney laughs. “But I had to leave it behind. It was time for me to become a serious Catholic, to get serious about my faith, intellect, and development.” That desire ultimately led him to Thomas Aquinas College — and he has never looked back.
After graduating from the College in 1997, Mr. Sweeney worked as a fellow in the California State Senate, which “launched my career in government relations.” In 1998 he worked on former Reagan Administration official Alan Keyes’ 2000 presidential campaign, which brought him to Virginia. “When the election was over, I ended up working for a state government-relations firm.”
A professional lobbyist for over a decade, Mr. Sweeney advocated mostly in state governments on behalf of aviation and cybersecurity interests — a task for which the College provided a unique foundation. “My job was to take complex information and distil it into something understandable for the typical legislator,” he says. “I had a lot of fun with it, and absolutely owe the skill to my experience at TAC.”
Lobbying eventually led to Capitol Hill — which was, prestige notwithstanding, a letdown. “I loved working in the state legislatures because I was meeting with the people who made the decisions. But on Capitol Hill, I was faced with 15 staff members and never actually the legislator.”
Providence came to the rescue in 2011, when Wyoming Catholic College began looking for a new director of admissions. “It seemed like a great opportunity for me to give back to the people who had helped me go to TAC,” says Mr. Sweeney. “Obviously TAC and WCC are not identical, but there are a lot of similarities.” After more than a decade on the East Coast, Mr. Sweeney and his wife, Regina (Aguinaldo ’97), moved their growing family to Lander, Wyoming. “When you live in D.C., a lot of people say, ‘One day I’ll move to the Shenandoah Valley for some peace and quiet,’” he laughs. “We just overshot the Shenandoah by about 1,000 miles!”
After four years at Wyoming Catholic College, Mr. Sweeney was intrigued by an opening at the Lander Chamber of Commerce. It was an opportunity to return to government relations, but at a much more local level. “Local policy’s a whole different ballgame,” he laughs. “It’s been interesting to learn how it operates.” A quick study, he joined the Lander Chamber of Commerce in 2019 and in late 2022 he became its CEO. “People like what they’re seeing, and they’ve increased their investments,” says Mr. Sweeney. “We’ve seen a 100 percent increase in membership revenue over the course of three years.”
His nomination for the Wyoming State Chamber of Commerce is a heartening affirmation. “When I began my role at the Lander Chamber, I had very little experience with boards of directors, whether serving on them or reporting to them; it was a whole new world," he says. "Now, I report to one and serve on two!” (Mr. Sweeney is also the Vice President of the Wind River Visitors Council, the lodging tax board of Wyoming’s Fremont County.)
Reflecting on his many and varied successes, Mr. Sweeney is emphatic about the role of the College in his life. “It has become very clear to me that the skillset I developed in government relations came right out of my experience at TAC, where every day I was improving my listening, my speaking skills, and my ability to persuade.” More than that, however, the College gave him the direction he needed to reorient his priorities and put God first. “There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful for the formation I received there,” he says. “As many other people have said, it saved my life.”