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Lockhart’s Legacy: First female speaker prides herself on collaborative style

High-profile role in a male-dominated setting may inspire others to be leaders.

Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo Speaker of the House Becky Lockhart starts the 45-day long 2014 Utah legislative session with remarks to set the tone in the House of Representatives Monday January 27.

For four years, House Speaker Becky Lockhart kept a unique memento on the corner of her desk: a set of brass balls.

The trinkets, a gift from friend and political ally Sen. Curt Bramble, were perhaps a fitting symbol for the first woman to hold the office in a male-dominated Statehouse, who was at the helm during battles over health care and public lands, who led the body on the road toward the possible impeachment of the state's attorney general and who, on more than one occasion, locked horns with fellow Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.

Now, with less than a week left in her tenure, Lockhart says she hopes she is leaving a House of Representatives that is more open and inclusive, and that she has paved the way for women in the future to seek leadership positions in the state.

"There's something to the visual, actually seeing a woman as speaker," Lockhart said in a recent interview. "There's something powerful to that because other young girls and women say, 'I can do that now because I've actually seen one.'"

Rep. Jennifer Seelig, the Democratic leader in the House who is also leaving the Legislature, said Lockhart's tenure was groundbreaking.

"Women in particular in politics and business really respond to images of other women in leadership positions and that was huge for her to be there," Seelig said. "She will totally undersell herself, but that's the truth. She changed the game on that."

Lockhart was a nurse, not yet 30 years old, raising a family in 1997 when her state representative resigned abruptly mid-term. Some politicos thought her husband, Stan, would be a shoo-in for the seat, but it was Becky who stepped forward and won the backing of a large majority of GOP delegates.

But then-Gov. Mike Leavitt instead appointed a friend, former Provo Police Chief Swen Nielsen, to fill the vacancy. The next year, the Legislature changed the law, and now the governor has to appoint the replacement candidate chosen by party delegates.

Lockhart returned in 1998, running for the Provo seat and winning it by a wide margin. As a legislator, she took a keen interest in road funding, helping to reshape the way Utah builds and maintains its transportation system.

She joined the House leadership team in 2008, being elected assistant majority whip, but her leap to the speaker's seat in 2010, upsetting Speaker David Clark by a single vote, surprised many in the Utah Capitol.

She promised a more hands-off, collaborative approach, letting the members set the agenda and giving any bill that could get the votes a fair shot.

"I had seen a concentration of power in the speaker's office that was concerning to me and I wanted to change that and I think I've done that," Lockhart said.

Her first year at the helm had its share of turmoil. Late in the session, legislative leaders pushed through significant changes to the state's open-records law, sparking a public firestorm and raucous protests that forced the Legislature to reverse course.

Lockhart said in hindsight the episode showed the importance of having an open process where people feel like they can participate — a model legislators on both sides of the aisle said she fostered in the House.

"Running a body that has a lot of people like the House sometimes requires a heavy hand. And somehow she was able to keep things together without the heavy hand that you've sometimes seen with speakers prior," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy. "I think that was a signature of her four years, more collaborative and more inclusive …. Less top-down and more bottom-up."

Seelig said that extended to the Democratic House members, as well. She kept an open door to the minority party and gave them more of an opportunity to participate in the process than they had been afforded in the past, Seelig said.

"She's not somebody who accumulates power," Seelig said. "That helped us [because] we could engage more in the conversation and change the hearts and minds of our peers."

In recent years, the House has seen rapid turnover, bringing many new faces and rookie legislators into the body,

Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said every Friday during the session the speaker would invite the freshman legislators — Republicans and Democrats — to her office where she would buy lunch and answer questions.

"She came into the first lunch meeting and said, 'You guys are new, there are a lot of questions you have. This is the forum for that. … If you want to know about process, the Senate, the media, this is how the relationship works,'" McKell said. "With our freshman class, she gave us absolute respect from Day 1."

Tangling with the governor • Perhaps no politician from either party has been as publicly and prominently critical of Republican Gov. Gary Herbert as Lockhart.

Both Lockhart and Herbert came from the same Utah County Republican circles and were friends years before they reached their political posts.

But shortly after being elected speaker, Lockhart made clear that she wasn't going to kowtow to the governor. After Herbert publicly criticized the Legislature's budget process, the new speaker, upset at the slight, walked into the governor's office and had a frank exchange with Herbert.

Lockhart said Herbert has a habit of pushing the envelope on his executive powers and thought his comments were insulting to the budgeting process.

"Was I unhappy? You bet I was. And I've learned over my years that sometimes a stern talking-to can be very effective," she said. "So Gary and I had a short conversation where I expressed my displeasure with his cavalier attitude about a tried-and-true process."

In some versions of the story, Lockhart threw a newspaper on his desk and scolded the governor. She insists that didn't happen, but "it would have been a nice touch."

"From the beginning, the speaker wanted to ensure the Utah House of Representatives was represented as a separate power unto itself," said Derek Miller, the governor's former chief of staff. "I respect her for that. She accomplished that very well and ought to be remembered for it."

It was not the last time the two locked horns.

In 2013, she publicly challenged Herbert to use his authority to veto more bills. The following year, Lockhart raised more eyebrows when she used her speech opening the session to label the governor "an inaction figure."

Herbert and his staff were working on the State of the State speech with Lockhart's speech playing on the TV in the background. The governor chuckled at the dig, said Miller.

"There were probably times when she took things too far," Miller said of Lockhart's jab. "[Herbert thought] she had obviously taken some bad advice from someone who didn't understand Utah politics."

Despite the occasional flare-ups, Miller said Lockhart was generally pleasant to work with on policy issues.

"Once you got beyond the campaign-poster persona, the working relationship between the governor and the speaker was collegial and productive," he said.

She has continued to be one of the most outspoken critics of the governor's Healthy Utah plan to subsidize health insurance for Utah's poor, saying it makes the state more dependent on federal money and the poor more dependent on government handouts.

"There are some things the governor and I didn't see completely eye-to-eye on and I would expect that," Lockhart said. "You want a diversity of ideas. You want debate on really important issues so you get good policy."

The sometimes combative exchanges have fueled speculation that Lockhart might challenge Herbert for governor in 2016. Lockhart says she hasn't made any decisions on whether she'll run, but isn't ruling it out.

Swallow scandal • In early 2013, Attorney General John Swallow was the subject of a long list of misconduct and financial impropriety allegations. A criminal probe was underway and some House members who were supporters of the attorney general argued the House should stand down and let those investigations run their course.

But Lockhart and a majority of House members from both parties saw it as their duty to investigate the issue for themselves, with the potential for the unprecedented impeachment of a top Utah official.

Lockhart said she provided the members of the House with the information they needed to decide the best course of action and let the process play itself out.

"I didn't know where it was going to go, but we shouldn't be afraid of whatever we found out, wherever that led," she said.

In July, the House created a select investigative committee that would hire a top-flight legal team and group of investigators to delve into the scandal. The probe, which cost roughly $4 million, was cut short when Swallow resigned in November 2013.

The investigative report released in March of 2014 said that he had engaged in a widespread pay-for-play scheme, destroyed and fabricated evidence, and in essence had hung a "For Sale" sign on the door of the attorney general's office.

Technology Glitch • Earlier this year, Lockhart looked to cement her legacy with a massive $300 million proposal to put a digital device in the hands of every Utah student. But it was unveiled abruptly midway through the legislative session and met with surprise and skepticism by senators and the governor, who balked at the price tag and the failure to lay the groundwork for such an ambitious plan.

The governor threatened to veto her proposal and the Senate refused to put more than a few million dollars into the program — prompting Lockhart to walk away from it altogether, for now, at least.

"The fact that it didn't move ahead last session shouldn't be viewed as a failure or a bad policy," Niederhauser said. "We have continued to work on that and are coming back, probably in this year and future years, moving toward a policy that she started. It was just the beginning of a lot of discussion."

Lockhart later sought the post of state school superintendent — spurring criticism because of her lack of experience as an educator or public school administrator — but did not make the list of finalists. She said she plans to stay involved in the education-technology issue as well as the movement to force the federal government to turn over tens of millions of acres of federal land to state management.

She might go back to college to get a master's degree focusing on public policy, and Lockhart and Seelig have been discussing ways to encourage more women to get involved in politics and leadership positions.

It's a steep climb. With their departure, there are just 10 women in the 75-member Utah House — the fewest in more than two decades.

rgehrke@sltrib.com

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune House Speaker Becky Lockhart bangs the gavel on the final night of the 2014 legislative session at the State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 13, 2014.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune House Speaker Becky Lockhart shakes hands with Governor Gary Herbert on the final night of the 2014 legislative session at the State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 13, 2014. Seelig is one of five female legislators retiring.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune House of Representatives speaker Beck Lockhart addresses the Utah Republican Party 2014 Nominating Convention at the South Towne Expo Center, Saturday, April 26, 2014.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune House Speaker Becky Lockhart addresses the Utah Republican Party 2014 Nominating Convention at the South Towne Expo Center, Saturday, April 26, 2014.

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