HAYWARD -- When Michael Sweeney steps down as mayor Tuesday, he will end a career that started in the 1970s when he worked on anti-war activist Tom Hayden's 1976 unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign.
The 64-year-old has been part of the Hayward political scene ever since. Sweeney is retiring after his third mayoral term; he also served two terms as a city councilman and two terms in the Assembly. During his time in Hayward, he has fought for environmental causes and to make City Hall more responsive.
Sweeney credits the Civil Rights movement and the turmoil of the 1960s as motivating him to become politically involved. "I graduated from high school in 1968 a couple of months after Dr. King's assassination and within days of Robert Kennedy's assassination," he said.
He received his bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from Cal State Hayward. At a friend's encouragement, he worked with Hayden's campaign and then started taking part in community politics.
"He's always fought for rent control and for the seniors in our community, especially the mobile home park residents," said retired Mayor Roberta Cooper.
Those were the voters who turned out to elect Sweeney to the City Council in 1982. Unlike many politicians, he didn't serve on any city boards before running for office.
"Oh, they would have never appointed me," he said, laughing.
In 1990, Sweeney received 70 percent of the vote to defeat incumbent Mayor Alex Giuliani.
"Land use was a big issue then," Sweeney said. "There was a proposal on the ballot to build 2,200 homes on Walpert Ridge. I said that was too many houses." Voters said no to the development, and the project was scaled back. About 600 houses have been built or are approved for what is now called Stonebrae.
After one term as mayor, he was elected to the Assembly in 1994 and re-elected in 1996. He ran unsuccessfully in the 1998 state Senate primary. He joined Gov. Gray Davis' administration as California Resources Agency undersecretary, working on environmental issues, and when Davis was recalled, Sweeney returned to Hayward.
"People started asking me to run for mayor again. I thought they were just being nice. But when it didn't really stop, I decided, 'OK, I'll run again,'" he said. He was elected in 2006 and again in 2010.
"One of the things that was clear in 2006, in many ways, (was) City Hall had a bad attitude about taking care of the problems in the community," he said.
He recalled a pivotal community meeting the council held after a motorist drove into a house in the Fairway Park neighborhood. Residents were upset about a lot of things, he said.
"I could tell some of my colleagues on the council wanted me to cut the comments off. But I let it go on for a couple of hours. They let the city have it," Sweeney said.
After that meeting, the city began a neighborhood partnership program and created an interagency task force to clean up houses where neighbors reported drug use and criminal activity, he said.
Former Councilwoman Doris Rodriquez met Sweeney at a state Democratic convention. She and another woman were watching Hayden supporters protesting, and the other woman called their actions disgusting.
"I thought: 'No, what they're doing is OK. That's what democracy is all about.' So I picked up a sign and joined the crowd. I don't even remember what the signs said. I was right behind Mike, who I met, and learned was from Hayward," she said.
"I have disagreed with him periodically, but I enjoyed working with him," Rodriquez said. "He's done a great job for Hayward."
Sweeney encouraged both Rodriquez and Paul Frumkin III to run for public office. Frumkin, who served 10 years on the school board, helped run Sweeney's first City Council campaign in 1982.
"Michael really believes the community and residents need to get engaged instead of just complaining," Frumkin said.
Sweeney also retired from his job as executive director of Spectrum Community Services, but will continue volunteering at the nonprofit agency that assists low-income people.
He also will stay active with the Keep Hayward Clean and Green Task Force, a volunteer group he started to pick up trash and remove graffiti.
"I have no plans to be involved in running for anything. But then again, I didn't plan to run for mayor a second time," he said, smiling.
Contact Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473 or follow her at Twitter.com/rdparr1.