Jay Seegmiller: Candidate wants to bring common touch to Congress
For more than 35 years, Jay Seegmiller has ridden the rails.
The train conductor has seen Utah's craggy canyons slowly unveiled by the soft orange glow of sunrise, the backsides of Provo's poorer neighborhoods whisk by at night and the shame of Amtrak's Salt Lake City station at any hour of the day.
"We call it Amshack," he said dismissively. "For a major city, it should be better than that."
Indeed, the station not far from the platforms sending TRAX trains off to downtown and Sandy and FrontRunner to Ogden is little more than a temporary trailer with an exterior that could be mistaken for a mobile high school classroom.
A station worthy of Salt Lake City would create jobs, he thinks. And if there's something the 6-foot-1, baldheaded Amtrak conductor has a one-track mind about, it's jobs.
But to create jobs, Seegmiller would have to leave the only career he's really ever known working on the railroad. So the 54-year-old decided to run as a Democrat for Utah's 2nd Congressional District seat to try and fix what he believes is a political train wreck in Washington, D.C.
"I want to bring civility back to Congress," Seegmiller said. "People just don't talk anymore."
Politicking • He had a part-time job as a politician at one point and his win for a state legislative seat was considered one of the more unlikely victories in Utah political history.
Seegmiller had already run two unsuccessful campaigns for the state House when, in 2008, he decided to take a third crack at Rep. Greg Curtis, who had amassed more than $500,000 in campaign contributions and was the sitting House speaker.
No Utah House speaker in four decades had lost a re-election bid.
Seegmiller decided he was going to knock on every door multiple times and seemed to relish the underdog role. He was so relentless, he even knocked on Curtis' door.
"Greg was a smart man," Seegmiller said. "He kept me talking on that porch because he knew if he kept me there, I wasn't going to be knocking on as many doors."
When Election Day rolled around, Seegmiller said the campaign made sure people turned out to vote. He said he'd learned his lesson in 2006 when he did the post-mortem on his campaign and found 20 voters who said they supported him but never went to the polls. The margin of victory was 20 votes.
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, had been Seegmiller's mentor in his first run for office and had invited him to join a group of Democrats who had been meeting for breakfasts every Tuesday morning since 1997.
She said she knew Seegmiller could pull it off because he was so determined.
"He'd get off work from the train at 3 a.m. and show up to breakfast and then be off to campaign," Arent said. "He just seemed to be tireless."
The result was startling. Seegmiller defeated Curtis by 11 percentage points.
On Utah's Capitol Hill • Seegmiller's two sessions in the Legislature were mixed in terms of productivity.
He failed to move his bill to ban smoking inside a motor vehicle with a child on board.
He also lost a bid to give the Utah Public Service Commission authority over any nuclear power plant in the state, basing approval on the facility's ability to dispose of waste in a federally licensed facility which does not exist in the United States.
But Gov. Jon Huntsman did sign his legislation that allowed those with disabilities to use their individual development account monies to buy technology that would assist them in their jobs.
And he got a bill passed that sought to crack down on adult entertainment businesses that were being used as fronts for drugs or prostitution. That bill passed both the House and Senate with a total of four dissenting votes.
Overall in two sessions, Seegmiller introduced a total of nine bills and passed two.
"The first thing I did when I got there was to start building relationships on both sides of the aisle," he said, "not just because I was in the minority party, but because I think you get a better product when everybody is at the table talking."
David Clark, who was the House speaker during Seegmiller's time in the Legislature, didn't see him as much of a player in the chamber, however. Instead, Clark said, most of his dealings were with House Minority Leader David Litvack.
"Jay was quiet, polite and softspoken," Clark said, "but I don't recall him involved with a lot of legislation."
Clark won't be voting for Seegmiller in the 2nd Congressional District contest even though Clark's part of a Federal Election Commission complaint filed against Republican nominee Chris Stewart after Clark and three other candidates alleged Stewart's involvement in a conspiracy that featured dizzying political theater at the GOP State Convention in April.
Stewart won the nomination and was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Utah Republican Party and Clark said he's simply "supporting the Republican candidate."
Railroading in the blood • Seegmiller was born and reared in Utah and comes from a long line of railroad workers. His father, grandfather and great grandfather were all in the railroad business. But Seegmiller originally wanted to pursue commercial art and design and enrolled at the University of Utah to study it.
He got a job with Union Pacific at the time, but soon discovered the hours and work required by the railroad didn't allow him to keep up on the school front.
"Then I married my wife and had a family and college became harder and less of a reality," Seegmiller said.
But to marry Michelle Seegmiller, he had to overcome a first date that went awry.
The couple had planned to see the Lee Marvin adventure movie "Shout at the Devil" on their date, but it was sold out. Seegmiller figured they'd just catch the other movie that was playing at the theater.
"So we saw 'Carrie' instead," Michelle Seegmiller said. "A horrible, horrible first-date movie. The whole time I kept thinking, 'I can't believe I went on this first date.' "
She decided to try and let Seegmiller redeem himself, though, since it wasn't his fault the movie was sold out. He did by taking her to a Bee Gees concert.
They were married two years later and soon had their first child.
By then, Seegmiller was locked into the railroad as well eventually taking a job with Amtrak.
He said he loves working on the train.
"In the dining car, when you sit in it, you'll sit at a table and across from you will be people who may be from Philadelphia, Australia, England you just don't know," he said. "And because you're eating with them, you talk. You tell them about your homes and they talk about theirs and it invites social interaction. It's a great way to learn about people from all walks of life."
Robert "Archie" Archuleta, who lived in the same neighborhood as the Seegmillers and is considered a close friend, said life on the railroad and living in a diverse community have equipped him to go to Congress and represent a broad cross-section of people.
"He wasn't at one end of society watching other groups from a distance," Archuleta said. "He was among them."
Final leg • On Monday nights, Seegmiller does the Grand Junction to Salt Lake City run and, on this particular Monday, the train is scheduled to arrive about 45 minutes early.
As it left the Provo station heading westbound, he walked with sure-footedness through the 20-car train as it swayed back and forth and hit 60 mph.
Robert Connors, wearing a lanyard with the words "High Roller" stenciled on the attached badge, stopped Seegmiller to ask him if they'd have time to get off the train and grab something to eat in those 45 minutes.
Seegmiller told him there was often a truck parked by the rail yard selling food, but that was about it.
Jesse Redman, a 26-year-old assistant conductor and aspiring rapper ("Resonomics") from Logan, said Seegmiller is at his best when he's on the train telling people about Utah as it passes through the Beehive State.
Redman has known Seegmiller since he was 10 because Seegmiller used to work with Redman's dad, who died several years ago due to complications from lupus.
As the two sat in a train car interrupted only by the occasional whistle whine and the gentle, rhythmic clatter of wheels rolling over rail joints Redman said Seegmiller helped him through the loss of his father. He said he is also studying and learning how to be a conductor from Seegmiller.
The train slowed as it approached the Salt Lake City stop. Redman put on a dust mask as he prepared to enter the baggage car and looked at Seegmiller.
"You're pure-blooded railroad," Redman said.
Seegmiller nodded, got up and put on his conductor's hat. He was the first off the train and on the platform. He patiently answered questions for passengers, electronically scanned tickets for people and turned the duties over to Redman.
"You ready to take over?" he asked.
"Yeah," Redman replied.
And with that, Seegmiller turned his back to the train and headed to his car and back to the campaign trail.
Age • 54
Occupation • Amtrak conductor
Born • Salt Lake City
Family • Married 34 years, four children
Previous political experience • Utah State Representative 2009-2011
Education • Attended University of Utah