Sam Granato brought together people — Catholics and Mormons, Republicans and Democrats — for decades

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune File Photo) County councilmen Sam Granato who is up for re-election, attends the 2017 budget presentation by Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.

When an elderly couple in the Millcreek area of Salt Lake County called Councilman Sam Granato’s office, upset that the county had flushed a fire hydrant in front of their home and filled their driveway with rocks, his aide Leslie Reberg began calling maintenance crews to clean it up.

“Sam told me that calling around would take too much time,” Reberg said. “He said, ‘Let’s go buy a couple of brooms, and you and I can get it cleaned up in no time.’ So that’s what we did.”

Granato, who served on the council as a Democrat for five years, died Wednesday after a two-year battle with a rare form of cancer. He was 67.

Reberg’s story was consistent with other tales about Granato’s service to the community. “He put a great deal of emphasis on constituent services,” Reberg said. “He wanted to have a personal touch with his constituents.”

Granato’s election to the council in 2012 was his first opportunity to serve in elective office. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010 but was easily defeated by Republican Mike Lee.

But that election became a bit of an enigma when Jim Bennett, the son of three-term Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, who was defeated at the GOP state convention by Lee that year, went to work on Granato’s campaign.

(Tribune File Photo) Democratic candidate for US Senate Sam Granato, at the taping of a candidate debate at the KUED studios in Salt Lake City on Thursday, September 16, 2010.

“I learned a lot about tribal politics,” Jim Bennett said about his bitterness in the way his father’s bid for re-election was doused by a few thousand delegates who were chosen through the exclusive neighborhood caucus system.

“Sam was a living example of men of integrity and character working on both sides of the political aisle — both Republican and Democrat,” said Jim Bennett, a longtime Republican. “Most people already know that, but it took me working for Sam to learn it.”

A giving spirit was fostered in Granato as a child, according to his cousin Dave Spatafore.

“He had a great philanthropic heart, and you know he got that from his father,” said Spatafore. “My first images of his father, Frank, is 50 years ago. He would drive his old pickup truck from Salt Lake down to Price and come see us at his house, and in the back of his pickup truck is all his salamis and cheeses. And Frank had a great philanthropic heart — and Sam was the same way.”

Before his foray into politics, Granato built his reputation as a savvy business entrepreneur, taking a small Italian food import store founded by his father and expanding it into a chain of Italian delis and a wholesale food distribution service, selling bread and other goods to local grocery stores.

A big reason for Granato’s success, said longtime friend Doug Foxley, was his unique ability to cross the cultural divide in Utah.

“Sam’s father, Frank, was a devout Catholic and heavily embedded in the Italian-American community,” Foxley said. “His mother, Edith, came from a devout Mormon pioneer family from the little Utah town of Leeds.”

Sam Granato adopted his mother’s faith, spending his life as a loyal member of The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But he had a healthy respect for Catholic culture, and his delis became a symbol of merging the two.

“He would have big spaghetti dinners at his warehouse,” Foxley said, “and they would bring together the most eclectic group of people you would ever see.”

The guests would include the president of the LDS Church and the bishop of the Salt Lake City Catholic Diocese.

U.S. Sen. “Orrin Hatch would be there, Jon Huntsman Sr. would be there, along with labor leaders and the warehouse workers who would be invited to join in,” Foxley said.

Granato would often turn the back room of his delis over to friends for private get-togethers.

When his good friend Randy Horiuchi, the Salt Lake County commissioner and county councilman, had his infant daughter baptized in the Catholic Church, Granato closed one of his delis for several hours to host a private party with the Horiuchi family and friends.

Horiuchi also liked to host sports-themed sit-downs for his friends with the likes of former Utah Jazz coach and general manager Frank Layden or University of Utah basketball coach Rick Majerus.

Granato always made his delis’ private rooms available for those events.

As a council member, Granato pushed for full Medicaid expansion in Utah and was instrumental in getting all nine members of the council to sign a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert, encouraging that expansion.

“He was an advocate for working men and women,” said Reberg. “In the budget, he always made sure the employees were taken care of.”

A Republican before switching to the Democratic Party, Granato was known for his collaboration with members on both sides of the aisle.

When the council — comprising five Republicans and four Democrats — came together in a bipartisan way, on any issue, GOP Councilman Richard Snelgrove called it the Granato Caucus.

Granato also served on the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, with one term as its chairman.

As a Mormon, he was a teetotaler, but he understood the importance of alcoholic drinks to the survivability of the restaurant industry, and he tried to streamline regulations to make them as workable as possible for restaurants and the tourism industry.

Granato was born May 24, 1950, in Salt Lake City.

He married Ann Wyss in 1974. She survives him, as do their four children.

— Reporter Paighten Harkins contributed to this story.