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Politics & Government

Utah Constituents Say Rep. Chaffetz Is Qualified To Be House Speaker

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The position of speaker of the House has gotten competitive. Here's what supporters say qualifies Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz. He sticks to his conservative Republican principles but is also quick to challenge how things are done. From member station KUER are in Salt Lake City, Whittney Evans reports.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: In Utah County, most of the local stores and diners are closed for the day as families attend church. But a few people, like Wayne Holdsworth, are strolling the sidewalks. Holdsworth says he did not vote for Jason Chaffetz, but he says he's impressed with his work as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, particularly his investigations into the Secret Service.

WAYNE HOLDSWORTH: I think it's good that he's willing to stick his nose in stuff to make things different.

EVANS: His friend, Larry Winn, did vote for Chaffetz.

LARRY WINN: If he believes in something, he'll go after it, like the Secret Service thing we were talking about, Planned Parenthood. And so he just basically goes after what he's passionate about. And I admire that.

EVANS: Chaffetz was recruited by then BYU football coach LaVell Edwards in 1985 to be a placekicker. When he arrived in conservative stronghold and Mormon epicenter Provo, Utah, Chaffetz was a Jewish Democrat. He even campaigned for then Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis in his 1988 presidential bid. He has familial ties with the Dukakis family. But by the time Chaffetz graduated from BYU in 1989, he had converted to the Mormon faith and the Republican Party. He credits Ronald Reagan for much of the shift in his ideology. Shirley Johnson has worked for BYU football since 1980. At the time Chaffetz was on the roster, she was an assistant to Coach Edwards. She says she's not surprised at how far he's come but rather how fast.

SHIRLEY JOHNSON: Oh, he's real bright and clever. And he's articulate. He was more of a loner than, you know, most of them who palled around with each other. But he just had his own agendas and own thoughts. And he had confidence in himself.

EVANS: Republican State Senator Howard Stephenson met Chaffetz as chief of staff for former Republican Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr.

HOWARD STEPHENSON: He has core principles about limited government, individual responsibility, individual rights and freedom. And he believes in those things so deeply.

EVANS: Chaffetz credits Stephenson with being the first elected official to publicly endorse him when he had next to no name recognition. Stephenson says he admired Chaffetz's refusal to spend money on delegates when he campaigned for Utah's 3rd Congressional District in 2007. In Utah, delegates are in charge of selecting political candidates in the state. He says a lot of campaign money is spent on feeding delegates. But he says Chaffetz refused to buy them anything.

STEPHENSON: Not even celery sticks. He said, 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 a local library, then I just won't be able to reach them.

EVANS: And Chaffetz did reach the delegates. In 2008, he ousted incumbent 3rd District Republican Chris Cannon, who failed to get the party's nomination in the primary. Stephenson says Chaffetz is making a difference in Washington, holding the federal government accountable.

STEPHENSON: Rather than following the wind and just being a wind vane, he stayed his course.

EVANS: Staying the course means Chaffetz has gained some foes along the way. As early as last week, Planned Parenthood criticized Chaffetz for using what they believe to be inaccurate data about the number of abortions they provide. But in Utah, conservatives are hoping their shining star kicker reaches the top. For NPR News, I'm Whittney Evans in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.