Former congressman Bill Orton dies in ATV accident

Published April 18, 2009 10:23 pm
Little Sahara » He flipped forward on a four-wheeler.
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Former Utah Congressman Bill Orton was killed Saturday afternoon in a four-wheeler accident in the Little Sahara Sand Dunes. He was 60 years old.

"Obviously our prayers are with [his wife] Jackie and the boys. It's just tragic," said Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland. "I think the whole state is gonna miss this guy."

Orton was riding on a mountain-type ATV when he went off a "very steep" dune about 4 p.m. and crashed his four-wheeler, said Juab County Sheriff Alden Orme.

He flipped forward off the four-wheeler and was riding alone at the time, but was visiting the area with other people, Orme said. Orton was wearing a helmet, Orme said.

His body was discovered by another ATV rider, and was flown by helicopter to Central Valley Medical Center.

Orme said Orton suffered "substantial injuries," but more specific information about those injuries will not be disclosed until an autopsy is conducted.

Orton served three terms in the House, a conservative Democrat representing a devoutly conservative district that included Utah County.

He pulled off an upset win in 1990 and twice won re-election before he was defeated by Chris Cannon in 1996, a loss fueled in part by the district's resentment toward President Clinton's surprise creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Orton's district.

"This is a great loss for our state," said Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson. "Bill carried a strong commitment to serving the people of Utah with him to Washington, D.C. He was a true Westerner with the independence that Utahns value in their elected officials."

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, who worked for Orton in his Washington office, said many people thought the congressman was a stern figure because he worked so intently.

"I really saw the lighter side of Bill. He was just so pleasant and so great to work for," she said.

She also saw the family side, after the Congressmen met his wife Jacquelyn when he was in his 40s. They married in 1994 and had their first son, Will, while he was still serving in Congress. Orton would take Will to the office and have him sit in on meetings, Wilson said.

They later had another son, Wesley, and the two boys blogged the family's travel to the Democratic National Convention and the presidential inauguration in January.

"He maintained that real strong tie to his family. He was probably one of the best dads I've been around and one of the most committed fathers," Wilson said.

While in Congress, Orton was one of the founding members of the Democrat's Blue Dog Caucus made up of moderate representatives from the party worried that House leaders weren't listening to the public's concerns and viewpoints of more conservative House Democrats.

"We told the Democratic [leaders] before they lost control that if they didn't do something to address those issues the public was concerned about, they were going to lose control of the House, and we forecast that and they ignored it and they lost control of the House," Orton said in a 2007 interview.

Orton said the change in power had little impact on his life. "It really didn't affect me that much whether I was in the majority or the minority because at the time I was ignored by my own leadership because I was a conservative Democrat," he said.

Utah Sen. Bob Bennett said Orton's death is "a great shock."

"As a congressman, he was always well-prepared to defend his position, which was often independent of either party. He was an important figure in Utah's political history and Joyce and I mourn his passing," Bennett said in a statement.

Orton served as a Democratic National Committeeman until last year, casting his delegate vote for President Barack Obama at the national convention.

Orton was plagued for the last decade with complications from a back injury he sustained when he was tackled in a corridor leading from the House office buildings to the Capitol. He frequently had to walk with a cane and suffered intense, lingering pain.

Orton earned his bachelors degree and law degree from Brigham Young University. He practiced tax law before and after his service in Congress. In 2000, he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Gov. Mike Leavitt.

Reporter Melinda Rogers contributed to this report.

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