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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mark Shurtleff reminisces over his 12-year career as Utah attorney general as a moving crew packs up his office Thursday. He officially steps down from the post Monday as his replacement, John Swallow, is sworn in.
Shurtleff surrenders soapbox
Politics » Gregarious, independent A.G. known for impromptu outbursts is off to work at a law firm; his spotlight-shunning successor will be a sharp contrast.
First Published Jan 06 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated May 22 2013 01:23 pm

It seemed that whatever item Mark Shurtleff pointed to in his office, it held a story of second chances.

There’s the twice-autographed Arnold Friberg painting. The once-confiscated and then-returned Golden Spike desk ornament commemorating completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in Utah. And then there’s the Aztec Eagle medal — bestowed on him by then-President Vicente Fox of Mexico in 2006 and the highest honor that government can give to a non-Mexican.

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It was all being packed up Thursday morning — mover Jose Chavez preparing to bubble-wrap the medallion ensconced in a display case — as Shurtleff finished out the last of his days as Utah attorney general.

Shurtleff asked Chavez if he knew the story of what happened to the medal. Of course, Chavez didn’t. Of course, Shurtleff was going to tell it to him.

Shurtleff, dressed in tan parachute pants, a black shirt and sneakers, told Chavez that after he got it, he took it to a friend in Springville to have it framed.

"Guess what happened?" Shurtleff asked. "It was stolen. Someone broke into the studio. They stole La Águila Azteca."

"Oh crap," Chavez said, studying the encased ornament.

"So, it was gone for two years," Shurtleff said. "And I didn’t want to tell Mexico because I’d be like ‘Can I get another one because mine got stolen?’ I thought they’d be mad at me."

The other two movers packing boxes had slowed down to listen in. Shurtleff smiled at the growing audience.

"So they say Mexico is dangerous but it got stolen in Springville, Utah," Shurtleff said. "So, two years later — two years — I get a call from the man saying he came to work one morning and found a paper bag on the front step of his shop. Águila Azteca was in there."

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The attorney general was still smiling. Chavez gave it another look and began wrapping it up. The movers began rolling 12 years of his life out the door on dollies and into storage. For the first time in a long time, Shurtleff wouldn’t be an elected official. Instead, he’ll start with a law firm, splitting his time between Washington, D.C., and Utah.

"I’m a little nervous," he said. "Will I be any good in private practice?"

Shurtleff’s style » When Attorney General-elect John Swallow is sworn in Monday, Utah will get as deep a contrast in styles as one can imagine from the post’s new occupant.

Swallow is a taciturn, reserved man who eschews the public eye. The 55-year-old Shurtleff, by comparison, can seem like a reality television star prone to polarizing audiences the moment he speaks.

Or tweets.

In his three terms, Shurtleff has been prolific and controversial on Twitter, outspoken against conservatives in his own party on gay rights and immigration, enraged at critics and media questioning ethics amid his fundraising prowess and very public about his recoveries from a motorcycle crash that smashed his leg and a diagnosis of advanced colon cancer.

That last one, coming in 2010, shattered his sense of immortality.

"It was a shock. Motorcycle accidents, 25 surgeries — busted my sternum and ribs — I’ve done a lot of stuff like that. Scuba diving, jumping out of planes — but I never thought I could be killed," Shurtleff said. "It never entered my mind. But then the doctor says you have a 50 percent chance of dying without chemo. Really? What is [the chance of survival] with chemo? He says, ‘Maybe 60 [percent].’ What? Sixty? I want to hear 90. It was an eye-opener. Yeah, I’m mortal."

It was during that cancer treatment that Shurtleff tapped out one of several tweets that dogged him and, at one point, had his staff confiscate his smartphone and limit his social media interactions for a while.

Debra Brown was convicted in the 1993 murder of 75-year-old Lael Brown and was sentenced to life in prison. But a judge in 2011 found her factually innocent of the crime and, from his hospital bed, Shurtleff tweeted.

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