Jane Swift screwed up. She knows it, her boss knows it, her entire state knows it. This is what Swift, the Republican Massachusetts lieutenant governor, did wrong: She asked her aides to baby-sit her 14-month-old daughter, Elizabeth Ruth Hunt, in her office, on taxpayers' time. She commandeered a state helicopter to fly her to her family home--and to her sick child--because she didn't want to sit in Thanksgiving weekend traffic on the clogged Massachusetts Turnpike.

This happens. Virginia's then-governor L. Douglas Wilder got busted years back for using a state helicopter to go see his then-girlfriend. Here in Massachusetts last August, Peter Blute--a top government appointee--had his picture snapped with a topless woman while on a taxpayer-funded booze cruise. People hear about this stuff, they get mad, a few angry columns are written, everybody moves on.

If only Jane Swift were so lucky. Eight days after her scandal broke--and one day after she finally, grudgingly, apologized--a local talk radio show host (Blute, actually!) had to extend his show for an hour to accommodate the angry phone calls. Swift, 34, was given a myriad of nicknames: Jane Air. Jane Erred. Sky Pilot. Dumbo. Monica Lewinsky Minus Six Pounds.

One radio station ran a Jane Swift promotion--Win a Chopper for a Day! A local paper reported on the suspicious appearance of diaper-changing tables in the Statehouse. Buttons were distributed: "It takes an ENTIRE State Government to raise a child." For nearly two weeks, Swift dominated conversation in this commonwealth.

Jane Swift, it seems, managed to make everyone mad. Male or female. Democrat or Republican. It didn't matter. And no one got more angry than those who Swift, foolishly perhaps, believed would defend her: working women like herself.

Perhaps, on the surface, this tale is about a government worker who took advantage of government resources for her own benefit. But it's also about politics. And gender. And for scores of working mothers who heard about Swift's situation, it damn well is about child care, whether or not people are willing to admit that.

Poor women are mad at Swift for taking what they can't have--and at their expense. High-powered women are mad at Swift for turning herself into a walking example of how even a mother with a big salary and a stay-at-home husband can't do it all. These are women who don't want anyone--especially not their lieutenant governor--providing their bosses with an excuse, the next time a partnership or promotion is raised, to say "See, it's too much, look at Jane Swift."

But almost all women are mad about how hard it is to balance career and kids. And now they're wondering why no one--not even the administration at the center of the scandal--seems to want to talk about that.

A Foot in the Mouth

Howie Carr knew this story was going to be big the moment he heard about it. Carr, a well-known columnist for the Boston Herald and the host of a 3 to 7 p.m. talk radio show, knew that this story had all the angles: crooked politician, dirty diapers, a helicopter flight over the Mass Pike as hordes of common folk gripped their steering wheels in frustration and tried to ignore their needs to eat and/or pee. Never mind that no one ever really found out how much baby-sitting the aides actually did, or if any ever had to change an actual diaper.

"Everyone could identify with this," Carr said. "Who wouldn't want a helicopter? Who doesn't need a babysitter?"

Everyone, that is, except Jane Swift. Swift didn't get it. She didn't understand that she was in trouble. She didn't understand that it wasn't going to go away. She even thought she could defend herself.

"I face many of the same challenges as other working parents," Swift said the day after the story broke, "but I also have some differences because of my schedule. There are times when I can't call in sick, when I can't just not be available."

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. This was a time to publicly plead for mercy, to tell the hovering masses that she made a mistake, that her judgment had been clouded by her love for her daughter, and that she would never, ever, do it again. It was time to write the check for the helicopter ride and apologize to the aides and perhaps make a call to a baby-sitting service and start interviewing some part-time help. It was not a time to declare herself above the rules.

"It was her arrogance that really made people angry--that she was above sitting in Thanksgiving weekend traffic," says Gerry Callahan, a sports columnist and talk radio host for Boston's WEEI. "That she needed a taxpayer-financed helicopter to get home for the holiday because she was somehow more important than the rest of us."

Then, Swift went on to compound the problem with a widely repeated quote that dismissed the idea that her aides were compelled to watch her daughter.

"I would be stunned if there was anyone who was feeling pressure to spend time with [Elizabeth] and care for her . . . she is adorable and engaging and she's learned to blow kisses."

Ouch.

Could Swift have handled this scandal any more poorly? Doubtful, says one Republican strategist who asked that his name not be used.

"Any time you don't cut your losses by admitting your mistake early on, you risk giving the story legs," he said.

"Add to that striking a defiant pose, which aggravated working women, and you get a 10-day story or more. Playing the struggling working mom card--that was what really drove the talk radio and all the letters to the editor."

The Wrath of the Working Mom

Jane Swift makes $75,000 in her role as lieutenant governor. She makes an additional $25,000 teaching one class at a local college. Her husband, Charles Hunt III, quit his construction contracting job to stay home with Elizabeth when Swift won the election. She is not your average working woman. Not understanding that turned out to be her biggest mistake.

Perhaps Swift--who declined to be interviewed for this story--thought she was striking a blow for working women everywhere when she stood, defiant, in the immediate aftermath of the scandal and told reporters:

"I'm not going to apologize for trying to be a good mother and a good lieutenant governor. I will continue to do the best job I can to be a good mother to Elizabeth, and that means if I have to work 12- or 15-hour days, I am not going to allow the media or anyone else to prevent me from spending time with my daughter."

Hey, Swift had played the gender card--the working mom card--so many times in the past and it had always worked to her benefit. Why should it be any different this time?

But it was. There are two things that have been repeatedly thrown in Swift's face. One is the self-righteous statements she made after Blute was fired for the booze cruise in August. It had been Swift who pounded the nails into his coffin: "The governor and I take very seriously the public trust placed in us. . . . Utilizing state resources for personal use is not acceptable."

The other is the Supermom thing. When a pregnant Swift campaigned for lieutenant governor in 1998, she made her baby-to-be a centerpiece of her image. She dismissed arguments from the conservative right about how she couldn't be a good mother and a good politician. She told people she was going to make it work. She volunteered for the Supermom mantle.

And now, in the eyes of many other working women, she's blown it.

No working woman is going to say it's easy. And perhaps, deep down, many do feel some empathy for Swift. These are women who miss class plays, and run out of their homes in the morning with peanut butter between their fingers and their pantyhose still in their purse. And sure they feel guilt about the days when they don't get home until after their daughters have had dinner, or their sons are already in bed. But they sure as hell aren't going to admit that in front of any career-track-controlling man. Please. They've worked too hard for that.

"This is what is hard for people to understand," said one partner-track Boston lawyer who has a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old and didn't want to give her name for fear her male colleagues would sneer. "Yes, I want to be partner. Yes, I think I deserve to be partner. And yes, I feel guilt every time I walk out the door before 9 p.m. But you know what? I feel more guilt every time I walk in the door of my house after 9 p.m.

"But if I admit that to [my employers]--if I tell them that I'm not willing to stay late, often just for the sake of proving you'll stay late--because I have kids, then I'm just handing over a great big reason for them to give partner to the guy two doors down from me. And that would really [tick] me off. That's also why this Swift stuff [ticks] me off. If she's going to parade herself around as the mommy who can also be lieutenant governor, then don't screw it up and leave all of us looking bad."

A Swift Downfall

It all went downhill so fast. Just one short year ago, there was Swift in the pages of the Boston Globe, in a glowing feature on how she was trying to balance career and baby, politics and the personal, and she was talking about her rule that if she spent 10 hours or more in the office, then little Elizabeth had to come in for a visit. So her husband could go for a run. And so she could see her daughter. It sounded like such a lovely concept then. How sweet. How family-values oriented.

No one sees it that way now with Swift. They don't see a mommy wanting to spend time with her baby, but a woman with a big salary getting away with taxpayer-paid baby-sitting. They don't see a family-friendly workplace, they see a politician taking advantage of subordinates. She thinks the kid is "adorable"? So what? No kid is that adorable. And where is Daddy-O anyway? Isn't it supposed to be his primary job to take care of Elizabeth? Isn't that what Swift claimed during her campaign?

"The reason why I think this story had legs is because I think it tapped into a lot of the resentment that families--especially young families with children--are feeling these days as they try to balance work and family," says Elizabeth Sherman, the director of the University of Massachusetts's Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy. "It's so overwhelming for people. . . . I think people are feeling completely stressed out and harried and they're trying so hard to be the be-it-all, do-it-all mom.

"Then they hear or read about the lieutenant governor who is bringing her child into work and having her aides helping out and baby-sitting and I just think they feel so resentful."

That has truly been the talk on the street in Boston--woman after woman griping about how she needs more help, she's had to do it without the benefit of choppers and assistants and everything Jane Swift seems to take for granted.

According to Massachusetts state Rep. Jim Marzilli (D-Arlington), there are 14,000 children in Massachusetts who are on a waiting list for state child care services. The administration of Gov. Paul Cellucci and Swift did not include funding for those spots in its last budget proposal.

"To me, this seemed like a great opportunity to talk about the larger issue: what women--lower-middle-class women, upper-class women, or just middle-class women--who are working have to do and balance and how much of all this falls on women," says Kelly Brilliant, a state government worker from Melrose, Mass., who was so incensed by the whole issue that she wrote a letter to the Boston Globe. "Instead, this was seized upon as a 'gotcha' piece."

A Nonpartisan Issue

Michael Goldman, maker of the Jane Swift "It takes an ENTIRE State Government . . ." buttons, is marveling at this story. A longtime Democratic operative from Boston, he sees it as a rarity: a story where everyone agrees, no matter their biases, no matter their politics. No one, he says, is going to defend Jane Swift.

He's right. Few will. Still, there are those who are angry at how this played out. Ellen Bravo, director of 9to5, National Association for Working Women, wonders aloud what would have happened if the same violations had been made by a man.

"Are you kidding?" she says. "If it had been a male lieutenant governor and he had brought his child to work it would have been 'Oh! What a fabulous guy! What a great father!' Men typically get kudos for the family-related things they do that women get criticized for. Men are seen as good guys when they take time out to take care of a child. Women are seen as problem employees."

Columnist Callahan sees her point, but doesn't agree.

"She's supposed to be this fresh young face--a female Republican, a young mother, a pregnant woman on the campaign who is going to forge this political career while raising the baby. And she turns out to be just like the rest of them--on the take and full of herself."

Jane Swift's career is not over. She may even soon inherit the Massachusetts governorship. Her mentor, Gov. Cellucci, is openly angling for a position in George W. Bush's administration, should Bush win the presidential election.

Not surprisingly, then, Cellucci has been one of the few people to stand up in Swift's defense, sort of. First, he went out of town on vacation. Then he avoided reporters' questions on the topic, declining the requests for comment of The Washington Post, among others. But after a breakfast on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Cellucci gave this statement in defense of his lieutenant:

"She's a new mother. She's just finishing her first year in a new job. A lot of this is new territory. I think she's learned a lot.

"She's my close adviser," he continued. "She's articulate. She's eloquent. She's passionate. She's been a great help in running the executive branch of state government. She will continue to be a great help. She has my full confidence."

Four days later, Cellucci gave his annual State of the State address in Lowell, with Swift in attendance. There was not one mention of child care.

CAPTION: Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Jane Swift apologized for asking aides to baby-sit daughter Elizabeth, below, and for using a state helicopter to get home quickly. But to many, she's still missing the point: Join the crowd, Mom.

CAPTION: A pregnant Jane Swift, campaigning at Plimouth Plantation in 1998, said she could be a good mom and a good politician.