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Jason Chaffetz: BYU kicker to political novice to GOP star to — House speaker?

First Published      Last Updated Oct 03 2015 11:11 pm

Former BYU kicker rises from ex-Gov. Huntsman’s chief of staff to political upstart to powerful U.S. lawmaker.

Washington • A dozen years ago, few people even knew Jason Chaffetz's name.

If they did, it was from his days as a kicker for Brigham Young University's football team. The young athlete relished pulling off his helmet after a successful boot and fanning his curly locks for the cameras.

Today, the 48-year-old Chaffetz is a well-known Utah congressman — a frequent TV guest, a social-media savant and head of a powerful committee — who is eyeing the top job in the U.S. House.

The Utah Republican is expected to announce Sunday his quest to succeed House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who is resigning at month's end.

Chaffetz's rapid rise from political novice to political star is an anomaly in some ways. He didn't start in local politics and take baby steps up a long ladder. He wasn't a wealthy businessman or the son of a political icon.

When he announced he was "testing the waters" for a congressional run on New Year's Day 2007 — a time he picked because he thought he could grab the most media attention — Chaffetz said he was a "frustrated conservative" who was "hungry and excited." His target, longtime Rep. Chris Cannon, hadn't even been sworn into office for his next term.

Chaffetz's long-shot bid — in which he promised no free lunches or gifts for GOP delegates who would decide the nominee — was virtually dismissed at first. He was outspent 9-to-1 by Cannon and 6-to-1 by challenger David Leavitt, the brother of former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt.

"A lot of people thought he had no chance because he wasn't well known in the party," recalls Neil Ashdown, then-chief of staff to Gov. Jon Huntsman.

But Chaffetz spent every waking minute talking to delegates and traversing the state to meet them one on one. At the GOP convention, he came within a few votes of knocking Cannon off the ballot. He eventually prevailed over Cannon in a primary and coasted through the general election in the heavily Republican district to win his first political office.

"He worked hard," Ashdown says. "Nobody works harder than Jason."

He will need that work ethic in coming days as he takes on another tall task. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is the odds-on favorite for the speakership. The frequently divided and sometimes-unruly GOP caucus makes its choice Thursday.

Chaffetz has been pitching fellow House Republicans that he can unite the right flank and the centrists to better own the GOP's messaging.

It's an interesting spot for a one-time Democrat who campaigned for then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Conversion • Chaffetz was born to Peggy and John Chaffetz in Santa Clara County, Calif., and bounced between there, Arizona and Colorado in his youth. His father previously had been married to Katharine "Kitty" Dickson, who later would wed Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee.

Jason Chaffetz earned an athletic scholarship to LDS Church-owned BYU, though he wasn't a Mormon at the time.

At BYU, an overwhelmingly conservative campus, he got his first taste of politics, co-chairing Dukakis' presidential run in Utah. Chaffetz says he wasn't that political and acted more as a gofer for the candidate when campaigning with him.

His stint as a Democrat — and a non-Mormon — didn't last long. He met with LDS missionaries at BYU and joined the faith. Later, as a public-relations official for the multilevel-marketing company Nu Skin, he met former President Ronald Reagan and became a Republican.

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