1977: Hatch takes office as a freshman fighter
Editor's Note • This is part 2 of the story "Birth of a Politician: Orrin Hatch." Read the first part at http://bit.ly/A94Am3.
Washington • When Orrin Hatch came to Washington his first office was in a basement with steam pipes decorating the ceiling. Senior Republicans told him to bide his time, learn the rules and one day maybe he could be a Senate big shot.
But Hatch didn't want to be penned in with the other freshmen. He had just defeated a Democratic leader and was already getting buzz as a future presidential candidate. He wanted to be out front, leading the fight for conservative causes. Not in years, but right then in January 1977.
And he did fight. In his first year in office, Hatch battled President Jimmy Carter on energy policy and the handover of the Panama Canal. He went after unions and their legislative priorities. He even clashed with Sen. Jake Garn, his Utah Republican colleague.
Many of the positions that he advocated in that first year are the same that he is pushing 35 years later, but a few of his comments on such things as immigration and gay rights would raise eyebrows if he said them today.
The Sen. Orrin Hatch of 1977 had yet to become an icon of Utah politics. He was still a young politician learning how to compete in Washington, but as in his first campaign, he made it clear he had no intention of following the playbook.
"He did things you were not supposed to do as a new senator. You were supposed to be seen and not heard and vote the way you were told," said Frank Madsen, Hatch's first chief of staff. "And that's not Orrin."
Fighting labor • Hatch took the oath of office on Jan. 5, 1977, in a quick ceremony performed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. He was one of 38 Republican senators in a Congress dominated by Democrats, who had just retaken the White House.
Ranked 98th in terms of seniority, Hatch was given the leftover committee assignments, including a spot on the panel overseeing organized labor. It suited him. To pay for college, Hatch had worked as part of the metal lathers union in Pittsburgh, but by the time he had become a senator, he had grown disenchanted with the labor movement.
His first speech from the Senate floor was a 25-minute denunciation of Carter's pick for labor secretary, Ray Marshall, who was skeptical of right-to-work states like Utah and supported a bill that would give construction unions wide authority to picket work sites.
"Dr. Marshall is an obvious captive of the big union labor bosses in this country," Hatch told The Salt Lake Tribune shortly before the Senate confirmed Marshall on a 73-20 vote.
Hatch lost that battle, but he won a bigger one the next year when he led an effort to block a labor-law reform act that would have made it easier for unions to organize and grow their memberships. It is a victory Hatch still relishes, and one he says came with divine assistance.
"I just know if you live your principles and you do what is right, you can have extra help. It is that simple," he said.
"We were going crazy" • Hatch didn't focus solely on labor or any other issue for that matter. He wanted his say on just about everything.
"We dealt with every issue," said Madsen, who noted it put strain on the young staff. "We were going crazy."
Hatch endorsed his first balanced budget amendment in his second month in office. He has since backed his signature proposal 12 times, but it has never passed the Senate, including a failed vote last year. But that first attempt was much less stringent than recent versions and even included an income tax hike to pay for the deficit, something Republicans would reject out of hand today.
He also introduced a constitutional amendment to ban abortions, making good on a campaign promise. In a speech on the Senate floor, Hatch tried to add a little levity to a volatile issue with a personal comment.
"There are those who would say it would have been better for society had I been aborted 43 years ago," he said, "but I hope they are in the minority."
A darling of the right, Hatch still took some positions in that era that would cause him considerable political problems now.
He was one of 11 senators to oppose legislation that would require employers to offer maternity leave.
He opposed allowing gay people to teach in public schools because he said they have a "psychological deficiency."
"I wouldn't want to see homosexuals teaching school anymore than I'd want to see members of the American Nazi Party teaching school," he told a group of University of Utah students.
In the summer of 1977, Hatch asked Carter to suspend immigration laws to allow 200 undocumented immigrants to pick cherries in Utah County before they spoiled, a move he made at the request of the state Farm Bureau. But Carter refused to do so.
In an interview, Hatch indicated he does not support any of these positions today. He said he originally opposed maternity leave because of the cost to employers during an economic downturn. And he said he has long worried about Utah's fruit farmers, supporting guest-worker programs that don't lead to citizenship.
As for his comment on gay teachers, he doesn't recall it, but said he was most likely "concerned about the tender minds of young people."
"It was stupid on my part" • Hatch's relentless desire to be in the center of the action added to the tension that existed between Hatch and Garn, his Utah colleague, who much to Hatch's displeasure never failed to point out who had the most seniority.
"It is a little disconcerting to have this young guy appear who is everywhere, fighting everything," Madsen said. "I think Jake did want Orrin to understand that 'I am the senior senator, under the protocols of the Senate that gives me the opportunity to lead out.' "
The tension started during Hatch's campaign. Garn, who was elected two years earlier, backed Hatch's Republican rival, Jack Carlson, and was also a big supporter of President Gerald Ford, while Hatch endorsed Ford's opponent, Ronald Reagan.
Garn also felt slighted that Hatch never talked to him about running for office, a common courtesy in politics.
"My thought was you don't bother a U.S. senator," Hatch said. "It was stupid on my part."
It only got worse when Hatch arrived in Washington, and Hatch showed he had no intention of following Garn's lead.
"There was tension, no question," said Mac Haddow, Hatch's campaign manager who took a brief job with the Senate office in 1977. "Orrin was ticking some people off."
Eventually, though, the two became close friends. Hatch often says Garn "is like a brother to me."
A strained relationship between a state's senators is far from unique. Hatch and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who just finished his first year in office, say they work well together, but there's been friction behind the scenes.
In their first year, they have fought over dominance on judicial and defense issues and offered competing balanced budget amendments. And Hatch is still frustrated that Lee has refused to endorse him as he seeks a seventh term in office this year. Lee said he plans to stay neutral in the race.
Becoming a player • Lee's influence with the tea party faction of the party, mirrors Hatch's clout with the far right in the late 1970s.
Beating the third-ranking Democrat in Sen. Frank Moss brought Hatch national cachet. He attended GOP events where he was often introduced as a potential Republican presidential candidate as soon as 1980, according to news reports in The Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.
But Hatch said he never took the presidential talk seriously, chalking it up to "lobbyists who were trying to curry his favor."
His national notoriety grew over the years, but any presidential momentum subsided. Hatch would wait until 2000 to run a long-shot, short-lived bid for the nation's highest office.
No Utahn has served in federal office longer than Hatch, who has seen his reputation shift over time. In Washington, he's no longer known as a constant brawler, but as a man who can negotiate a deal, leading to major legislation on such things as health care and domestic violence.
"In that first year, he fought everybody on everything," Madsen said. "I think the difference over the years has been that he has discovered if all you are going to do is fight, you are going to get nowhere because you are not a player."