Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a prominent and vocal antagonist to President Obama and Congressional Democrats, announced Sunday that he will run to succeed Rep. John Boehner as speaker. The move, Chaffetz said, is to give voice to the elements of the Republican caucus that felt previous leadership didn’t take the fight to Democrats on issues like Planned Parenthood funding and the debt ceiling.
“I think the American public wants to see a change. They want a fresh start,” Rep. Chaffetz said Sunday on Fox. “You don’t just give an automatic promotion to the existing leadership team; that doesn’t signal change. I think they want a fresh face and a fresh new person who’s actually there at the leadership table in the speaker’s role.”
Upending the status quo is not a new role for Chaffetz. In 2007 he made the decision to jump into a primary race against 10-year veteran Rep. Chris Cannon. The choice he said came because he was a “frustrated conservative,” who felt that Republicans “had a chance to make some major changes and they didn’t do it,” and as a result found themselves in the minority. His candidacy was about being “hungry and excited” to win back voters who wanted a return to Republican values and principles.
At the time Chaffetz was considered an extreme longshot. He was outspent 9-to-1 by Cannon and 6-to-1 by another challenger David Leavitt. Chaffetz knew he would be outspent so he set about making sure that he was not out-worked. In fact, he became known for refusing to spend any money to feed the delegates who are in charge of selecting party candidates in Utah.
“Not even celery sticks,” Chaffetz said of his decision not to provide delegates with lunch. “It’s not about feeding delegates. It’s about meeting with them and if they’re not willing to meet with me in their homes or in their local library then I just won’t be able to reach them.”
He did reach them, becoming an outspoken member of the conservative wave.
Although Chaffetz got his start in Congress by running to the right of a Republican incumbent, he got his start in politics working on the other side of the aisle.
Chaffetz’s, who was born and raised in the wealthy, left-leaning suburb of Los Gatos, first dipped his toe into the realm of politics by working as the Utah co-chairman for the Democratic presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, his step-father.
Chaffetz’s biological father, John, was married to a woman named Kitty Dickson, who, after they divorced, married Dukakis. It’s a twisty situation that he grants is not easy to understand. “I wish I had a flip chart,” he once said. Complicated or not, that family connection has allowed Chaffetz to stay in tune with Democrats, even as he has emerged as a leading, and outspoken, conservative figure.
“We all feel like he’s family because of his connection to Massachusetts,” Rep. Jim McGovern, a friend of Jason’s half-brother, Jon Chaffetz Dukakis,” told Roll Call.
“He is a very impressive young man,” Rep. Delahunt (D-Mass), a friend of Gov. Dukakis also said. “He has excellent people skills, and he knows how to state his position in a way that is respectful. He’s someone with a future here because of that.”
It’s unlikely that when Delahunt made those comments in 2009, with Chaffetz just a rookie Republican, that he could have predicted just how far and how fast Chaffetz would rise.
But once again, the quick ascent is unlikely to surprise anyone who has studied Chaffetz’s past. His first job was as a spokesman for a beauty company called Nu Skin. It was there that he honed the communication skills that he now holds out as one of his greatest assets.
“I’m arguing that one of my strong suits is actually going on camera and going before the media and making the case to the American people,” Chaffetz said recently during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “I was a Speaker who speaks.”
The job at Nu Skin would ultimately have a much bigger impact on Chaffetz than just his honing his public speaking ability; indeed, it was what made him a Republican in the first place. During Chaffetz’s stint as spokesman the company hired former President Ronald Reagan as a motivational speaker. According to reporting done by the Washington City Paper, “Reagan’s politics rubbed off on Chaffetz. Seeing Reagan off at the airport, he got an autograph and a pair of his new hero’s cuff links. He has called it the experience that made him a conservative.”
Newly inspired, but without a clear career direction, Chaffetz bounced around a bit. He joined a company called Headwaters Inc., then decided to move to Arizona, where his wife grew up, then returned to Utah and applied to the Secret Service, and then secured a meeting with a man named Jon Huntsman, who was running to be the governor of Utah.
Chaffetz had never run a campaign, but that didn’t matter.
“Don’t worry,” Chaffetz recalls Huntsman saying. “I’ve never run for governor before. We’ll figure it out.”
With hard work and serendipity, they did. Ultimately, Huntsman led the transition team and rose to be Huntsman’s chief of staff, a position that allowed him to develop the deep in-state connections that would seed his later run for the House of Representatives.
“I knew he was going places,” Neil Ashdown, who replaced Chaffetz as chief of staff told the Salt Lake Tribune. “He definitely had that leadership quality. And he had a knack for what it takes to be in politics today, and that’s communication abilities.”
Those communication abilities have allowed his star to rise quickly. Most recently, Speaker Boehner tapped him as chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a powerful and public position that has offered Chaffetz a megaphone to question the White House’s involvement in issues like the IRS scandal, Benghazi and Fast & Furious.
Can Chaffetz continue his rapid upward movement? He’s certainly (and perhaps begrudgingly) earned the respect of a wide swath of the House of Representatives. And perhaps more than any other candidate sits comfortably at the intersection of moderate and Tea Party Republicans. But win or lose don’t expect Chaffetz’ to go anywhere. In fact, he’s just getting started.
Photo Credit: Don LeVange. See more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wickenden/