From the school auditorium’s sixth row, Kathie Allen quietly waved a piece of paper with “DISAGREE” written in red marker.
For months, she’d been disappointed by President Donald Trump’s campaign, frustrated by his rhetoric and irritated by his inauguration. And now her congressman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, was standing onstage and defending him.
“By far Donald Trump was the better choice,” he said during his raucous town hall in February. “There was no possible way I was ever going to vote for Hillary Clinton.”
Allen joined in as the crowd booed. And then, standing there in the tightly packed audience, she decided to run for office.
“I just was fed up with it,” she explained.
The 64-year-old Cottonwood Heights resident has practiced family medicine for 30 years. She can play the accordion without looking at sheet notes. She sang Balkan music in the 2002 Winter Olympics. But she has never been a candidate before.
In the nearly eight months since her launch, she’s proven to be a renegade newcomer to politics, hauling in an impressive mound of donations, becoming a social-media maven and winning the Democratic nomination in the special election to replace Chaffetz since he stepped down early in June.
Sure, it’ll be a feat for Allen to pick up votes in a district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 6 to 1. She knows it.
“I don’t think there’s a single day I haven’t heard that,” Allen said. “I just think it’s the right thing for me to do.”
An early taste of politics
Allen considers her life to be a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. If so, she first picked a government track when she was 21 years old.
During her senior year at the University of Redlands, a liberal arts college in Southern California, the psychology major enrolled in an American government class required for graduation. As her professor spoke about the executive branch and the Electoral College, Allen was captivated.
So when Shirley Pettis decided to run for Congress a few months later, she applied to be an office aide.
Pettis, a Republican, won her seat in 1975 after a special election to replace her husband, Jerry Pettis, who died in a plane crash. For three years, Allen wrote radio spots for her and mailed letters to constituents.
“I learned a lot about how the government works,” she said, “and how it fails to work sometimes.”
When she left, Allen took a job working at a housing and community development program in San Bernardino County. She’d drive around the dusty deserts of Yucca Valley looking for participants to enroll (always with a pair of climbing shoes in the back seat so she could explore Joshua Tree National Park).
The effort was meant to upgrade housing for elderly residents. It gave Allen a glimpse into how low-income people “really live” in America.
“They didn’t have running water a lot of times. They didn’t have toilets,” she said. “Sometimes we would just build them an outhouse. They didn’t even have that.”
At the same time, Allen itched to finish her pre-med requirements. She took classes at a nearby community college and studied for the Medical College Admission Test. With a recommendation from Pettis, she was accepted at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, where she graduated in 1984.
As a kid, Allen watched her father as he practiced clinical hypnotism, which she says with a laugh while her communications director cringes.
“He used to hypnotize me before each school year, and he would put this suggestion in my head that I would always try my hardest and do my best,” she said. It might have worked, too, as she brought home A‘s and only ever one B+.
Mostly, physician Byron Allen used hypnosis to help his patients quit smoking. He also delivered babies, assisted in surgeries and practiced outpatient medicine, though with a more traditional approach. Trying to do it all — or be “super-doctor,” as Allen puts it — was a constant source of pressure for him.
He took stimulants to stay up late at his practice and depressants to fall asleep when he got home. It was like turning a light switch on and off until the bulb burned out.
“He’d be glassy-eyed sometimes and others he’d be irrationally angry,” she recalled. “It was frightening for a kid.”
In her teens, Allen worked in her dad’s office as a janitor. One day she went in to clean the bathroom and found a syringe floating in the toilet bowl that he had tried to flush down. Years of suspicion had shifted to certainty: He had an addiction.
When she turned 17 and got her driver license, Allen loaded her 14-year-old sister into her car and drove 90 miles to the next town. They called the first minister listed in the phone book. He picked them up, prayed and called their parents.
Her father stopped popping prescription pills for a while after that. But he continued to abuse for much of his life.
Wanting some distance from that is what ultimately led Allen to move 600 miles away and complete her residency at the University of Utah.
A caring doctor
When Bobbie Jensen injured the iliotibial band in her right knee playing soccer, she worried about having to sit out for a few games.
That wasn’t what first concerned Allen. “Did you at least win?” the doctor asked with a smile.
It made Jensen, who was in high school at the time, laugh and forget about the pain for a minute. It’s how Allen has always treated her, she said, “just so personable and friendly.”
Jensen, now 32, was a patient of Allen’s for some 20 years when the physician ran her own family practice in West Valley City. Allen also saw both of Jensen’s parents, her brother and her aunt.
“I have seen over the years how deeply she cares about people and how truly smart she is,” Jensen said.
Allen founded her clinic in 1990 in suite No. 340 of a small office complex. She loved running the show and building loyalty with patients. It was difficult, though, to stay on top the demands in an ever-changing industry.
One year her income was docked 1 percent because she didn’t use a new code for Medicare prescriptions. She had never even heard of the requirement.
“As all of these regulations came in and insurance became more regulatory, I was spending more and more time doing paperwork and not seeing patients and not generating revenue,” Allen said. “It was getting harder to make my payroll.”
She quit private practice in 2012 and sold her business to St. Mark’s Hospital, which is owned by the Hospital Corp. of America. She worked under that domain for three years feeling stifled and ineffective.
Allen usually kept insulin samples in the fridge to give to low-income individuals with diabetes. The corporation didn’t approve of the habit.
“It was like practicing with one hand behind my back. I wanted to do what was right for my patients and instead I found myself many times directed to considering the bottom line of this for-profit company.”
She left in 2015 for her current job serving Utah Transit Authority staff at a clinic where she works Mondays and Tuesdays.
Kim Hadley, a North Salt Lake resident and a current patient, credits Allen with figuring out the mystery behind her husband’s heart problems. He’d had two heart attacks and visited several cardiologists who couldn’t determine a cause. Allen diagnosed it as atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rate that causes poor blood flow, and got him on a prescription that’s helped.
Hadley, 54, says Allen is more attentive than other doctors she’s had. She listens, stays up-to-date on new studies and tells the truth.
“I feel like our relationship is more than just physician-patient,” she added. “When you meet a person that’s as special as she is, it’s like this friendship has developed.”
A fundraising powerhouse
Allen calls it “incredible serendipity” that she learned how to tweet on the night of March 6.
“Do you have a Twitter handle?” her friend asked as she went over the basics.
“Yeah, but I don’t know how to use it,” Allen responded.
The two sat for hours going over instructions and, by the next day, Allen was still a little uncertain of her new social-media skills. She decided to give it a try anyway.
That morning, Chaffetz had appeared on national television and remarked that “rather than get that new iPhone,” low-income Americans may have to prioritize spending on health care. So Allen tweeted: “Cell phone vs. health ins. People have to make a choice. Yes they do, Jason!” She then shared a link to her CrowdPac fundraising page as “another choice.” The message went viral.
In a matter of hours, the $20,000 Allen had sitting in an exploratory account jumped to an astonishing $410,000 as angry people across the nation donated to her campaign.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she recalled with a laugh.
Now Allen has tweeted more than 11,000 times and amassed nearly 28,000 followers. The first-time candidate, too, has collected about $700,000 — an unprecedented feat for a Democrat in a race often overlooked due to its overwhelmingly Republican tilt.
Most of the money comes from small, out-of-state donations of less than $200. None of it comes from corporate political action committees.
Not one of the five Democrats that Chaffetz faced and demolished since his first win in 2008 spent more than $60,000, and the congressman never captured less than 65 percent of the vote. In this race, Allen is financially leagues ahead of her Republican competitor, Provo Mayor John Curtis, who’s raked in around $400,000, according to his latest filings.
Allen still runs her own Twitter account — her spokesman, Daniel Friend, says “that’s something we decided to embrace because Kathie’s good at that” — and sometimes spends hours responding to constituents each day. She jokes about avoiding a “Chaffetz 2.0,” urges people to register to vote and interacts with folks asking for a doctor’s opinion.
It’s obvious that her experience in medicine has attracted voters, as well as driven one of the major planks of her platform: health care reform.
“I’m uniquely qualified to have that discussion,” she said during her victory speech at the Utah Democratic Convention in June. “I’ve been in the trenches a long time.”
Becky McDaniel worked alongside Allen for 28 years as her nurse. No one on the staff had been there for less than 10 years, she said, when Allen closed her practice. It’s the kind of loyalty she earned from her employees and her patients.
McDaniel credits Allen’s compassionately blunt bedside manner. When a woman came in with a rotting foot caused by a diabetic ulcer, for instance, Allen unflinchingly informed her that she’d need an amputation.
“She always told them how it was,” McDaniel said. “She never sugarcoated anything.”
It’s the same approach Allen has taken during the race.
The doctor disapproves of Republican-led efforts to repeal Obamacare and supports Democratic plans for universal health care. She jokes that conservative doctors in Utah have called her “a damn socialist” for that position. But she doesn’t seem to mind the nickname much.
A Renaissance woman
Allen points to a single frame hanging on the off-white wall in her office. It’s a photo of Seabiscuit, the undersized and underestimated racehorse that ultimately became a champion.
“I like looking at him while I’m sitting here working,” Allen explains. She considers the horse a metaphor for her campaign as a Democrat in the reddest of districts.
Her husband, Craig Fineshriber, remembers the day they first heard the story.
They were driving, as they do in the summer, from their home in Cottonwood Heights to their property near St. George. Fineshriber usually packed some audiobooks for the four-hour trip and decided to put in “Seabiscuit” as written by Laura Hillenbrand.
“Both of us were just fascinated by this wonderful story about the little horse that could,” he said.
Fineshriber first met Allen in May 1989. He hadn’t been on a date in 20 years, so he was a bit hesitant when his co-worker wanted to set him up. Still, he called Allen and invited her to watch an opera that he was performing in with the orchestra.
“It was her voice that got me right off the bat,” Fineshriber said with a grin.
After the concert, the two drank tea and talked in Allen’s kitchen until 1 a.m. with the date running into her 36th birthday. The two wed a little more than a year later in June 1990.
Fineshriber brought three kids to the marriage. Allen brought a love of foreign films and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. They shared an interest in music.
He was a percussionist for the Utah Symphony. She liked to sing.
Allen started the Darena’s Women Balkan Chorus in 2000. The Eastern European music connected her to her Armenian grandparents, and she learned to play the Bulgarian kaval, the tamburitza and the accordion. The group performed in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
“She taught us the language, the pitches, the notes, the harmonies,” said Karie Bird, who joined the group with “no experience with Balkan music whatsoever.” “She always expected us to push beyond our abilities.”
Bird later got Allen to join a Sweet Adelines chorus, which is a barbershop ensemble for women. Allen is a bit of a Renaissance woman in that regard, Bird notes with a laugh. Before the election, the doctor took French classes on Fridays, had tickets to the symphony and read science journals for leisure.
The congressional race
At Allen’s campaign headquarters, nestled in a brick matrix of insurance offices and dentist lobbies in Holladay, nearly everything is blue: the stack of yard signs taller than a nearby chair, the board counting down the days until the Nov. 7 election, the “we love our volunteers” banner hanging under the ceiling, the flags covering the windows.
“I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind not wanting to vote for you,” Fineshriber says with a nod toward the materials.
Since Chaffetz stepped down — something Allen takes “a little bit of credit for” and which he’s said is “flat-out delusional” — she has had to reframe her campaign. Now she’s running against an experienced Republican mayor, Provo’s John Curtis, and the new United Utah Party’s Jim Bennett, son of the late three-term Sen. Bob Bennett, as well as a handful of independent and third-party candidates.
In the most recent poll, Allen fetched 16.67 percent to Curtis’ 54 percent. It’s not what she had hoped for or expected, but she wasn’t about to let it be her political epitaph either. Allen has known from the beginning that this campaign would be a challenge. So she took the numbers as a sign to canvass harder, tweet more, advertise bigger, doubt less.
She’s championing truth in government, research into medical cannabis and protection for young immigrants. The Trump administration, she says, has hurt scientific research and put “idiots in Cabinet positions.” And she doesn’t want tax breaks for wealthy individuals.
How about public lands? Keep development away from them.
Obamacare? Fix it.
On trade? “Give me a week,” she says with a smile. “I’m a doctor. I’m not a professional politician.”
If she wins, it’ll be a major upset. If she doesn’t, Allen plans to sit in another auditorium seat calling for reform at the next town hall.