Business before politics: Stewart once Becker's boss
Washington • Before launching his first mayoral campaign, Ralph Becker decided to part ways with the urban-planning business he nurtured for 22 years.
He sold it to Chris Stewart and worked for him temporarily.
Now, six years later, Becker is a second-term mayor of Salt Lake City and a leader in the state's Democratic Party, while Stewart is a freshman Republican member of the U.S. House who represents ... you guessed it, Salt Lake City.
This political twist of fate has brought together two men who may be far apart ideologically, but who are close in temperament and who developed a deep respect for each other outside of the highly partisan world of government.
"When you go through a transaction like that, you get to know someone," Becker said during a recent trip to Washington. "I have the highest regard for him. He's smart. He's principled. He's very fair in the way he looks at things. He gets into things and understands them."
Becker's Bear West and Stewart's Shipley Group teamed up in 2005 to pitch the Forest Service on a new way to catalog the large numbers of public comments that can come in on proposals with environmental impact. They won the $400,000 contract.
By the end of the next year, Becker had made up his mind to run for mayor, but he couldn't fathom doing that and running his five-person small business at the same time. He reached out to three Utah-based environmental consulting firms and struck a deal with Shipley for an undisclosed sum.
His four employees found jobs elsewhere, but as part of the deal Becker stayed on as a Shipley employee during the transition. He steadily ramped down his hours as the 2007 mayoral campaign approached. He had no solid backup plan if he lost, but Stewart indicated Becker could stay on if necessary.
"It was understood from the beginning what I was doing," Becker said, "and I obviously wanted to help the firm be successful."
Stewart found the mayoral race intriguing and regularly questioned Becker about it. As a Farmington resident, he didn't have any vested interest in who won, but he wasn't a big fan of outgoing Mayor Rocky Anderson.
"I felt like Rocky Anderson was such a divisive figure. He divided the city," Stewart said. "I knew that Ralph was the exact opposite. He's an accommodating, gracious person."
While he didn't donate any money, make an endorsement or volunteer, Stewart secretly rooted for his friend and, at that time, employee.
Becker won the contest. Shipley folded Bear West into its portfolio, eventually selling it to another firm, which changed its name and ceased operations in 2012.
That's the same year that Stewart emerged on the political scene, unexpectedly securing the Republican nomination in the 2nd District, while much of the attention was focused on the 4th District race between Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, a Republican.
In the early stages of his congressional run, Stewart called the mayors of all of the cities that reside within the 2nd District, which includes parts of Davis County, almost all of Salt Lake City and the western half of the state down to St. George.
When Becker got the call he didn't know what to say.
"I've got to tell you, I was completely surprised," he said.
Becker wished him well, said he wouldn't "speak ill of him," then endorsed Democrat Jay Seegmiller. The mayor said it was a move based on his desire to see more Democrats in office.
"I was not supporting Jay in any way as a comment that I didn't think highly of Chris," he said.
"I respected that," he said. "You have loyalties to policies and positions and I think those positions have to take precedent over friendship, but friendship is still important."
Since Stewart's victory in November, the two men have had a few conversations about Salt Lake City's federal needs, but nothing too in depth. Becker hasn't pitched the new congressman on his vast planning effort for the Wasatch Mountains, though he knows, when he does, that Stewart is well versed in federal environmental processes.
Becker's held off, allowing Stewart to get settled into his office and build relationships with people throughout his vast district. But soon, the two former business owners will engage in some detailed conversations. They may agree; they may not. Either way they expect their relationship will hold up under the political spotlight.
Becker said their friendship should help avoid miscommunication and that sometimes-awkward feeling-out period.
"In this arena you want to have confidence that your conversations and communications are taken in the spirit that they were meant," Becker said. "And I think when you know someone, like I know Congressman Stewart, you can proceed from that basis."