Jason Chaffetz: Newcomer not new to politics

2008-06-14T23:00:00Z Jason Chaffetz: Newcomer not new to politicsJoe Pyrah - DAILY HERALD Daily Herald
June 14, 2008 11:00 pm  • 


What happened May 10 came as a surprise to almost everyone but Jason Chaffetz.

On that day, Chaffetz crushed supposed frontrunner David Leavitt at the state GOP convention and fell just nine delegate votes shy of ousting long-time incumbent Chris Cannon for the U.S. House seat in District 3.

"Erroneously, people think it's all about name ID and big bucks," said the 41-year-old Alpine resident who made phone calls and knocked on doors for two years to secure his early victory.

But can a candidate who worked so hard to reach a thousand delegates in turn reach tens of thousands of mainstream voters in the primary election? Chaffetz is a former Democratic supporter who has a pair of Ronald Reagan's cuff links, a man who relies on his personality and energy to carry him past obstacles, a man whose campaign "hot line" is his personal cell phone.

To parlay his early success into a primary election victory, he'll need more than money, an army of volunteers and a core of angry voters. He'll need the same ready-or-not approach that landed him a place-kicking gig at BYU and a job as the governor's unlikely, though short-lived, first chief of staff. He'll need to be in the right place at the right time, one more time.


Before his baptism into the Republican Party, Chaffetz joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

His path to Mormonism began when he was a "skinny geek" playing high school soccer in California. The school's principal approached a group including Chaffetz and begged for a place kicker for the football team. On a whim, Chaffetz tried out and won a place on the team.

"I became an exceptionally good kicker," Chaffetz said. "I have leaned on that experience the rest of my life."

He was recruited by Brigham Young University, where he hit 89 of 94 point-after attempts and 16 of 25 field goals from 1988-89. Fellow place-kicker Earl Kauffman remembers Chaffetz had a habit after every extra point and field goal.

"After a kick, boom, his helmet came off," said Kauffman, who played with Chaffetz for two years at BYU. He and other teammates would tease Chaffetz about straightening his hair for the camera.

During his time at BYU, friends said he owed it to himself to read the Book of Mormon, a volume of LDS scripture. He did and came to believe in it, and he decided during his senior year that he was ready to be baptized. But before he could, he was told, he would first need to hear the missionary discussions that outline the church's beliefs. Chaffetz suddenly found himself the teaching target of young men from the nearby Missionary Training Center who would come eight at a time in vans to test their evangelical aptitude.

"I never saw the same missionary twice," Chaffetz said.

Where it took dozens of missionaries to complete his religious conversion, it took just one man -- Ronald Reagan -- to complete his political conversion less than a year later. Previously, Chaffetz was not only identified as a Democrat but was co-chairman in 1988 of Dukakis for Utah. Chaffetz's father, John, had married and divorced Kitty Dukakis before she married then Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.

Chaffetz worked hard at the campaign, Kauffman said.

"As an 18-year-old kid, I was like, 'You do what?' "

Chaffetz says his time with the Dukakis campaign was more about family connections.

"I was in my late teens," he said. "I wasn't driven by any political issues."

Whatever the reason, Chaffetz worked hard enough and was committed enough that Kauffman says, "I was really surprised when I saw him as a Republican with the governor."

After finishing college with a degree in communications, Chaffetz joined Nu Skin as an intern. He said working during the 1988 presidential race gave him a chance to explore his political beliefs, and what he discovered is that he fit in better with those on the other side of the aisle. So when Reagan -- then a former president -- came to Nu Skin as a motivational speaker in 1990, Chaffetz's conservatism was already firmly in place.

Chaffetz worked with Reagan's advance team and ended up spending most of two days with the former president as he spoke and held meetings with Utah dignitaries. It was a again a matter of Chaffetz being in the right place at the right time when he ended up in Reagan's meeting with LDS Church leaders, one year to the day after Chaffetz had been baptized.

As Reagan later prepared to board his plane at the airport, Chaffetz asked for an autograph, which he got along with the 40th president's tie clip and cuff links.

Chaffetz got married shortly after the Reagan visit, and he and his wife, Julie, now have three children. He would stay at Nu Skin for nearly 11 years, moving up the ladder and holding titles such as managing director of marketing and product development and general manager for Australia and New Zealand.

Since leaving in 2000 to pursue other opportunities, he has worked at several other companies including at Covol Fuels, now Headwaters Energy Services. He now owns his own marketing business, Maxtera, with his brother Alex.

Into the fray

In 2004, Chaffetz was angling for a job, any job, with the campaign of gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. He had volunteered for other campaigns in previous years, including Cannon's in 1996, going so far as to write a letter to the editor lauding him as the best man for the 3rd District seat.

While he hadn't played a significant role in any of those previous campaigns, he was eventually chosen as Huntsman's director of communications. Huntsman surprised him during a trip to Fillmore by asking him to take the next step and become his campaign manager. Chaffetz protested that he'd never run a campaign before and wasn't qualified. Huntsman reassured him he'd never run for governor before and that they'd figure it out together.

Shortly after rolling to victory in the state's general election, Huntsman asked Chaffetz to stay on as his chief of staff, again a job he freely acknowledges he wasn't qualified for. While Huntsman would eventually tell the Deseret News in 2005 that Chaffetz was the "most gifted political strategist I have ever encountered," his stint as chief of staff was both short and rocky.

He left after less than a year -- the official line was "to pursue other business opportunities" and to nurse a badly broken foot that happened in a fall at home.

But several people close to the situation say that while Chaffetz was a dynamic campaigner and loyal to the governor, he struggled with the grind of day-to-day government and alienated some lawmakers in the process.

The move, said one observer, was because "it was time for a change."

Chaffetz said Thursday his understanding of the Legislature wasn't as good as it should have been and that the relationship struggled.

"I certainly had my share of bumps along the road," he said of his time as chief of staff. But he says he still has the confidence of the governor -- why else would he continue to be appointed the UVSC board of trustees?

When asked how he expects to operate within the largest bureaucracy in the world -- the U.S. federal government -- if he struggled at the state level, Chaffetz said he has learned from his mistakes.

"I do understand it now. Granted I've got things to learn, but I'll figure it out," he said. "I think I'm more qualified having been chief of staff than most people having gone into the [U.S. House]."

After leaving the Governor's Office, he considered a run against Jim Matheson in the 2nd District but decided against it. In fact, his decision to run in the 3rd District -- where he doesn't live -- raised more than a few eyebrows. Cannon says if Chaffetz is really serious about improving the Republican party, he should be working at taking down Matheson, who is Utah's only Democrat in Congress.

Chaffetz counters that Republicans need to tend to their own house before taking on Democrats. He says he lives a mere 11,000 feet from the boundary and that when Utah gets its fourth seat after the next Census, all of Utah County will be in the 3rd District. The district makes up most of Utah, Sevier, Millard, Beaver and Sanpete counties, but also weaves into Salt Lake County to include West Valley City and West Jordan. Not in the 3rd District are the cities of Lehi, Alpine and Highland.

"I think I have a lot more in common with the people of the 3rd Congressional District than the 2nd," he said, calling the boundary issue "pillow talk."

And now, the candidate

On that May 10 at the state GOP convention, Chaffetz's opponent David Leavitt stood shell-shocked above the floor of the UVSC McKay Events Center, and Cannon let out the long, slow breath of a survivor after a very near miss. Among the fallen balloons and empty chairs stood Darren Gardner, an epitome of all their problems.

Gardner is a GOP delegate from Taylorsville who came to the convention as a Leavitt supporter but swung to Chaffetz after hearing him speak. Only nine more swing votes and Chaffetz would have ousted Cannon outright.

"It was the stump and the fact that he was more specific, and he hit the issues more than Leavitt did," said the 19-year-old Gardner.

The stump speech that Gardner heard is the same one that Chaffetz has been giving for almost two years, and he has it honed to perfection. It drew the loudest response of any speech at both the state and Utah County conventions, and it made Leavitt's speech at the state convention feel pompous and dull.

The speech caters to Republican delegates, who tend to be more hard-line than the typical voter. In it, Chaffetz paints himself as the cure to Washington insiders, including Republicans who have failed to live up to their party's ideals. He lambasts immigration policy (calling for the elimination of birthright citizenship if the parents are illegal), federal meddling in schools (calling for the elimination of the Department of Education) and global warming (calling it "a farce").

"I thought he gave a very powerful speech at the state convention, but I didn't expect such a large margin," said Mike Mower, who sat next to Chaffetz in a class at BYU, spent time in Jerusalem with Leavitt and ran Cannon's first campaign in 1996.

That margin was bolstered in large part by the "ABC" vote -- Anybody But Cannon. For years, an increasing number of delegates have been forsaking the incumbent and propping up contenders, each time getting closer to ousting Cannon at the convention.

But can he do it?

Those contenders have a tradition of riding the ABC vote then getting killed by Cannon in the primary race. Chaffetz, like those before him, claims he is different.

"The other guys have self-destructed," he said, specifically citing 2006 challenger John Jacob.

Jacob spent $500,000 of his own money only to stumble badly toward the end after it came to light that he employed a couple who had questionable legal status and after saying that the devil was keeping him from Washington, D.C., by undermining business deals.

Chaffetz also says he has been vetted by the press because of his time with the governor. In fact, he invokes Huntsman's name regularly during appearances -- including a dozen times during a recent hour and a half interview -- though there has not been an endorsement from the governor. Spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said Huntsman will back whoever wins the primary.

That lack of institutional support is evident. During the convention, Cannon had the backing of Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett as well as several other local politicians. While it didn't appear to help much in the confines of the McKay Events Center at Utah Valley State College, that kind of support can have more impact as the election involves more people.

Chaffetz does have some well-known backing from conservative circles, such as state Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Gayle Ruzicka, the leader of Utah's conservative Eagle Forum, though she doesn't live in the 3rd District. Ruzicka gave Chaffetz a hug at the convention when it was clear he was going to get the most votes.

"I could have predicted that that's the way it would go," she said.

Chaffetz also has an army of volunteers and an unpaid staff. He decided early on that the race would be less about raising money and more about pushing ideas. The volunteers were used to blanket the convention with Chaffetz banners and are now being used to knock doors and place yard signs.

"I think it is a different race than we've seen in the past because Chaffetz continues to outwork any opponent," said Kirk Jowers of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. And the ground game that was so effective at the convention, he said, can potentially be scaled to the primary level where you don't have to reach 600 delegates but rather 60,000 voters.

For example, said Jowers, if he gets hundreds of volunteers to convince half the likely voters, swaying more than 50 percent of them suddenly seems in reach.

"The math is not quite as difficult as it seems," Jowers said. "I think it will end up being a pretty close race."

Mower, who now works in the Governor's Office, said Chaffetz's strength lies in being able to assemble a "first-rate" team around him. His all-volunteer campaign team has proved its mettle so far, but as much as Chaffetz says he can win without big money, studies show that to beat incumbents one needs "somewhere north of $300,000," Jowers says. According to the latest Federal Election Commission filing, Chaffetz has raised about $164,000.

Until the June 24 primary, he'll be spending his days campaigning. Last week, he held a fundraiser at his home and held a cottage meeting in Salt Lake County. He has spent a considerable amount of time organizing hundreds of volunteers and answering calls to the information hot line -- his own cell phone -- that's posted on the campaign's Web site.

Jowers wouldn't bet the farm on Chaffetz, saying incumbents still win 98 percent of the time. But there are some intriguing variables to the race.

"Everybody underestimated Jason Chaffetz once," he said, "and you hesitate to do it twice."

Joe Pyrah can be reached at 344-2559 or jpyrah@heraldextra.com.

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