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From the Archive: Lawmaker Relishes Work In Legislature

Published August 14, 2013 2:03 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

This is an archived story that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune, March 3, 2003

Rep. Chad Bennion runs headfirst into trouble. And, to him, that is not a bad thing. The baby-faced Republican from Murray has garnered more publicity and generated more talk-radio chatter and letters to the editor this year than any of the 103 other members of the Legislature.

Much of it has been negative, stemming from his hijacking of an innocuous seat-belt law to press his own crusade to wipe out belt laws for adults.

He also thrust himself into the middle of the caustic fight over hate-crimes legislation and has become the banner carrier for conservatives taking on public-employee unions by outlawing members' political action committee donations through payroll deductions.

But unlike most of his colleagues on Capitol Hill, Bennion doesn't seem to mind the slings and arrows. In fact, he seems to embrace them.

"Everybody's picking on Chad," says conservative Orem Republican Rep. Mike Thompson.

"Because they know I can take it," shoots back Bennion.

His high threshold for abuse is reflected in his life-consuming hobby: long-distance running.

"To be a marathoner and start dropping out of races even when it's tough, it makes [quitting] easier to do," says Bennion. "Maybe that's part of the story of why I don't shy away from some of these things. . . . I don't let [pain] stop me."

But above absorbing and thriving on pain, the 38-year-old Bennion also knows how to dish it out. As a result he has become a magnet for unflattering nicknames. A former political opponent calls him the Republicans' "hatchet man." A legislative staffer labels him a "twerp." Bennion acknowledges that some have even given him the nickname "Prince of Darkness."

He recently received an e-mail from a resident — who does not live in his district — encouraging him to contract the deadly West Nile virus. "I just laugh, laugh it off," Bennion says.

Some colleagues praise his backbone.

"He's not afraid to stand up and take some shots. You have to admire that," says Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns.

"Chad absolutely speaks his mind and is to be commended for that because he speaks when it's not always popular," says Rep. Steve Mascaro, R-West Jordan.

Asked if controversy has made Bennion radioactive, Mascaro responds: "You mean more so than normally?"

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, talks almost pityingly of Bennion — her nemesis this year on traffic safety legislation. "I think he's lost a lot of respect," she says. "It has cost him his reputation."

The Ambush: It all started on a sleepy afternoon during the first week of the Legislative session now drawing to a close. A House committee on which Bennion sits was set to hear a bill tweaking Utah's seat-belt laws.

That's when Bennion struck. With just 10 minutes notice, he bumped Moss' bill out of the way and replaced it with his own plan to abolish seat-belt laws for adults.

While the gambit worked, and he got the overhauled bill passed out of committee, it spawned a barrage of ridicule. A self-described faithful belt-wearer, Bennion insists legislating responsible behavior isn't government's business.

"We as a society are weakened every time we pass a law to tell someone what is common sense to do," Bennion declared. "We're just granting back [the liberty] we took away a number of years ago."

He later told traffic-safety lobbyists that he had greatly advanced seat-belt education efforts by drawing so much attention to the issue. "The objective with this process is to make the best public policy we can," he says. "And you can't do that without debate."

Even when the debate is aimed at roasting him? "Like I've always suggested up here, they say that a thick skin in politics is good; I would say that a hide is much better."

Running helps, too.

These days when Bennion isn't at his desk, or catching a few hours of sleep in his Capitol office, he usually is in the canyon behind it, or the nearby Avenues, logging miles. He averages three to seven miles daily and more on the weekends.

Once it was more than a leisure activity. In the early 1990s, Bennion was a competitive runner at the elite level of the sport. A member of three U.S. teams, including the world champion 1993 team, he once ran 10 miles in 47 minutes and 25 seconds. That was before a back-wrenching auto accident put him on the sidelines.

He credits a seat belt for saving his life. "If I hadn't had my belt on, I probably would have gone through the windshield or eaten the steering wheel or something like that."

On the Run: Long-distance running may be the most solitary sport — a good choice for Bennion.

But it has cost him.

In 1996, his first wife, Christine, moved out with their two small daughters. She blamed the collapse of their nearly five-year marriage on verbal abuse and his obsession with racing and unpaid volunteer work as a board member of U.S.A. Track and Field.

Living in the basement of her in-laws' home, eight months pregnant and working two full-time jobs, she confronted him in the summer of 1995. "When I brought up the issue of him needing to get a job, he became furiously angry and told me to 'Take a long walk off a short pier,' " she alleged in a sworn court document.

Chad Bennion filed for divorce eight months after the separation. He sought custody of the two kids, alleging his wife had "wrongfully and surreptitiously" taken the girls and whisked them away to Oregon, where he was denied proper visitation rights.

He concedes now that he helped Christine and her father load her furniture before they left, "but I didn't want her to go. I couldn't stop her from going."

Custody was awarded to the mother.

While the divorce was pending in 1997, he launched his first bid for elected office: running for Murray mayor.

He lost the race, but loved the experience. "It actually helped me keep some of my sanity," he says.

His next bid was more successful. He ran and won an open state House seat in 1998. Since then he has remarried and, with his wife, Alexandria, is raising two children. He has visitation rights with his other two daughters, who live in California.

Bennion has been re-elected twice, including a narrow 86-vote victory last year over Democrat Tim Cosgrove. Late in the campaign, he used a negative mailer that included a bad picture of his opponent and implied Cosgrove supported legalized gay marriage because he had accepted a large donation from a gay-rights group.

Cosgrove, who insists he never has supported same-sex marriage, believes the last-day mail piece cost him the election.

Some critics believe that Bennion's intense interest in seat belts this session may have something to do with the fact that Cosgrove is one of the major proponents of such legislation in his job as lobbyist for Primary Children's Medical Center.

Cosgrove declined to be interviewed for this story and Bennion denies any ulterior motives in his seat-belt stand.

But personal politics have crept into his bills before.

Getting Personal: In 2001, Bennion successfully sponsored the so-called "paycheck protection" act, designed to halt the voluntary, but automatic deduction of union political action contributions from government employees' pay- checks.

Bennion insisted the move was simply a matter of good policy, but acknowledged that he had been slighted by the Utah Education Association, a major patron of a string of his Democratic opponents.

This year, Bennion sponsored a bill making several changes in the paycheck bill. Union officials say the Republican-backed measure will mean more legal bills for taxpayers, who already have shelled out $420,000 defending his original bill and face another $200,000 in appeals expenses.

His bill this year to amend the law — even as its predecessor continues its march through courts — gave rise to one of only two closed-door caucuses of House Republicans so far this session. Subsequently, the bill passed the House, albeit with unanimous opposition by minority Democrats.

Many of Bennion's other bills haven't fared so well.

As of last week, just three of his 18 bills and resolutions had passed both the House and Senate. Seven were either killed or held in committee, one was abandoned, one was defeated on the House floor, another was awaiting House action and five were pending Senate consideration.

As in other realms, Bennion has detractors in the Senate, including Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, a crusty 35-year veteran from Price.

Dmitrich recently complained to the Sergeant of Arms that Bennion should not be allowed in the door on the Democratic side of the Senate. It is a repeat of a dispute started last year.

"Every minute he was coming behind my back," says Dmitrich. "I kind of like him personally, but he bugs the shit out of me."

Bennion has obviously gotten under the skin of some Republican leaders as well.

House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, declined to be interviewed about Bennion. Too busy, said a spokeswoman.

But animosity between them was obvious to all observers during a confrontation Thursday night over hate-crimes legislation.

Bennion was at the forefront of attempts to block the measure. When Stephens rejected his repeated delaying motions, Bennion attempted to use the last-resort motion of calling for adjournment — a non-debatable motion, which generally takes precedence over all others.

"We've got a lot of work to do tonight," replied a frustrated Stephens. "I'm going to rule your motion out of order and you don't have the floor anymore."

It was the legislative equivalent of telling him to shut up and sit down.

Like Stephens, House Republican Majority Leader Greg Curtis initially refused to grant an interview for this story. "What good could come of it?" he questioned.

Finally, he relented, saying complimentary things about Bennion's "pleasant personality" and good work ethic. He denies that Bennion is in the doghouse with leaders of his own party, and says his poor record in passing legislation this year was because he may have bit off too much.

When they are not in their part-time legislative jobs at the Capitol, Curtis and Bennion work together at the Salt Lake County Government Center. Curtis is legal counsel for Mayor Nancy Workman. Bennion is an administrative aide to GOP Councilman Marv Hendrickson.

In contrast to his Capitol style, Bennion never makes waves at the county.

Hendrickson, an honorary Utah Highway Patrol colonel was a bit miffed at Bennion's seat-belt antics, but says his aide has to be his own person in the Legislature.

"I've called him on a few issues, but then I've told him to vote his conscience," Hendrickson says.

Future Aspirations: His high profile this session has had at least one potential benefit for Bennion: he is now a household name — although in some homes it is a four-letter word.

While he has mentioned it to others, Bennion denies he has his eye on the governor's office. But, he quickly adds, he wouldn't rule it out.

"If there were an opportunity, why wouldn't you take it?" Bennion says. "But, you know, there are a lot of things that have got to be right."

Family support. Money. Timing. And, of course, a chance.

In the meantime, he says he is focusing all his energy on the business at hand.

"I just kind of grab onto [something] and push until the point of exhaustion," he says. "I take this stuff pretty seriously. The thing is the decisions that get made up here do have impact to people's lives. . . . So, I spend a lot of time working on them and being really thoughtful."

And sometimes — as in the case of seat belts — he grabs someone else's legislation to advance what he believes is a serious, thoughtful agenda.

"It's true," he acknowledges. "I have no doubt, there will probably be other occasions as well."

dharrie@sltrib.com

tburr@sltrib.com

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Tribune reporter Kirsten Stewart contributed to this story.