For his role in the shrinking of Bears Ears and the passage of a tax bill, Sen. Orrin Hatch is The Tribune’s Utahn of the Year

(AndrŽ Chung | special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Hatch in the Senate pro tem office in Washington D.C. on December 21, 2017 with an original portrait of President Lincoln on the wall. This is the same painting that Lincoln actually sat for and is the basis for the penny. Senator Orrin Hatch is the senior senator from Utah, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and President pro tempore of the United States Senate.

Washington • Love him or hate him, Sen. Orrin Hatch racked up big wins in 2017 on long-promised Republican goals of overhauling the U.S. tax code, erasing Obamacare’s individual mandate and gutting two sprawling national monuments that angered many southern Utahns and Hatch’s conservative base.

President Donald Trump even took a day — during a time when the tax overhaul, North Korea and other pressing matters were on his plate — to fly to Utah to announce the sweeping changes to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

“You are a true fighter, Orrin,” Trump declared in Utah’s Capitol. “And I have to say, I’ve gotten to know him very well. ... He’s a fighter. We hope you will continue to serve your state and your country in the Senate for a very long time to come.”

Hatch, serving his 40th year in the Senate, has yet to say whether he’ll seek what would be an unprecedented-for-Utah eighth term in 2018, but he has trumpeted his position as Senate president pro tempore — third in line for the presidency — as well as his perch as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

He’s had the ear of the president, and not many in Congress can say that, even as his Senate actions have earned a strong rebuke among Democrats and independents who used to count on the Utah senator as a bipartisan dealmaker. Three-quarters of Utahns don’t want him to run again, and, at 83, his age has raised questions about his ability to continue doing the job.

Still, there is no question that Hatch has been a key player in shaping the new administration’s impacts on the nation and Utah. Arguably, the senator has never wielded more clout. And in recognition of the singular role he has played in many of the major news stories this year, The Salt Lake Tribune has named Hatch as the 2017 Utahn of the Year.

(AndrŽ Chung | special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Senator Orrin Hatch is the senior senator from Utah, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and President pro tempore of the United States Senate.

“It’s been a very good year for the senator and a good year for the state of Utah,” said Boyd Matheson, president of the conservative Utah-based Sutherland Institute. “In terms of a positive, proactive year, he probably hasn’t had that kind of year in a long while.”

Hatch says he’s had pretty good years before, but, “This is pretty hard to beat, I have to admit.”

“I feel really blessed,” he said in an interview last week. “I really do. I feel like I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. I think I’ve put Utah on the map, to a large degree. Not that it wasn’t, but it’s a bit more. Utah hasn’t been left behind as far as I can see.”

Although decried by American Indian tribes, environmentalists, Democrats and a significant portion of Utahns, Hatch’s efforts to get Trump to severely shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments underscored his power in Washington.

Though public lands issues had been virtually invisible from Trump’s campaign and the White House agenda, the president flew some nine hours round trip to Utah in early December and spent less than 2½ hours on the ground to make the announcement. While in the state, he met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with Hatch as his escort. When he signed the monument proclamations, Trump handed Hatch the first pen he used.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. President Donald Trump, surrounded by Utah representatives looks at Sen. Orrin Hatch to give him the pen used to signs a presidential proclamation to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017.

“I’m approving the Bears Ears recommendation for you, Orrin,” the president told the senator in a November call.

The two heaped praise on each other at the Utah Capitol but it was not nearly as much of a love fest as when Trump invited members of Congress to the White House on Dec. 20 to celebrate the passage of the first major overhaul of the tax code in three decades — the president’s first significant legislative win. Hatch called him a “heckuva leader” and said Trump may become the best president in U.S. history. In turn, Trump said Hatch was a “special friend.” The two speak frequently, Hatch’s office says, and the senator notes the president always picks up when he calls.

Trump has also made no secret that he wants Hatch to run for another term, a decision that the senator says he’ll make soon.

Will he or won’t he?

Hatch had promised his 2012 campaign would be his last. It may not be.

The senator has kept Utah in suspense all year, wavering between saying he’ll seek re-election and then saying he might hang it up. The answer seemingly depends on his mood.

Hatch had said he would like to stick around if he was close to getting tax reform passed, and now that it has, he’s still contemplating another bid.

“My wife [Elaine] would like me to hang it up,” he said last week. But, he quickly added, “I have a lot of pressure to keep going, from the president right on down, my colleagues here in the Senate. ... It’s a little too early to say.”

The endless speculation has sparked some consternation among Utah politicos and potential candidates who are stuck waiting to see if the path to the seat is open or if Hatch will engage his immense campaign account and political machine to seek an eighth term.

He added more fuel to the speculation earlier in the year when he said he would step aside if former presidential candidate Mitt Romney wanted to run. Romney has reportedly said he’s interested, a development that sparked national headlines and concern from the White House, which does not hold Romney, a vocal critic of Trump, in high regard.

Hatch’s decision looms over the Utah political scene, because prominent figures beyond Romney, such as Reps. Chris Stewart and Mia Love, might consider a Senate run if Hatch decides to retire.

Hatch plans to speak with his family over the holidays about whether he’ll run, but he’s offered up several reasons why he should, starting with his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee that would oversee any potential changes to Medicare and Social Security, as well as his sway on the Judiciary Committee.

Hatch was a front-line cheerleader for getting Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, confirmed and has also touted the Senate’s ability to get 12 circuit court judges approved this year (more by far than any other president in his first year) and a score of district judges on the bench.

Lightning rod

Hatch and his fellow Republican senators earned a strong rebuke from Democrats over the Gorsuch nomination. The GOP majority had held the Supreme Court seat open for a year after the death of Antonin Scalia, preventing then-President Barack Obama from filling it with his pick, Merrick Garland.

And that wasn’t the only time Hatch was in the crosshairs.

An investigation by The Washington Post and CBS’ “60 Minutes” found that a law, which Hatch played a key role in, helped fuel the opioid crisis across the country by hamstringing the Drug Enforcement Administration from cracking down on large-scale shipments of the drug.

Last year, more than 63,600 Americans died of overdoses, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The law was the crowning achievement of a multifaceted campaign by the drug industry to weaken aggressive DEA enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies that were supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who peddled narcotics to the black market,” the investigation found. “The industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, pouring more than a million dollars into their election campaigns.”

Political action committees tied to the pharmaceutical industry funneled $177,000 to Hatch’s campaigns during the time the law was being pushed through.

Hatch pushed back, noting the DEA had not objected to the bill and alleging the report was an attempt to smear Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., who had sponsored the bill and was the nominee to be the nation’s drug czar.

Soon after the report was published and broadcast, Marino withdrew his nomination.

Democrats also blasted Hatch for pushing through the tax bill without more congressional hearings, which was largely written by the majority party and held secret until hours before votes. It was the same for the failed plans to jettison the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

During one contentious hearing earlier this year, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., grilled Hatch about whether there would be hearings on the health care bill, catching the Utah senator off guard.

“I think we’ve already had one, but ...” Hatch said, trailing off as an aide came to his side. Hatch conferred with his assistant for a few seconds and then repeated her comments.

It got even more heated when Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the GOP tax bill would just mean the “rich getting richer” off the backs of the poor.

“I come from the poor people, and I have been here working my whole stinkin’ career for people who don’t have a chance, and I really resent anybody that says I’m doing it for the rich,” Hatch responded, clearly enraged. “Give me a break. I think you guys overplay all the time, and it gets old. And, frankly, you ought to quit it. … So don’t spew that stuff on me. I get a little tired of that crap.”

Hatch also defended his health this year, arguing that he feels his age a bit more but that nothing is stopping him. A physician’s report on his health found he was in relatively good shape for his age.

A Washington Post story in December focused on Hatch and two other elder senators in noting that the Senate was now the oldest in history with eight octogenarians currently serving, nearly twice as many as ever.

Don Ritchie, the longtime Senate historian who is now an emeritus with the office, says Hatch has always been notable for his efforts to work across the aisle, especially when he made deals with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. And all of his years of experience carry weight.

“‘Senate’ comes from the same Latin root as seniority,” Ritchie said, “and there are definitely rewards for longevity.”

Hatch’s 2017 was clearly noteworthy, and he’ll be a major player in 2018 as well, not just because of the campaign for his seat, but also because of the role he is poised to play in Washington, as Trump looks to renegotiate trade deals, pass an infrastructure spending bill, modify, if not kill, the Affordable Care Act, create new immigration policies and potentially alter Medicaid and Social Security.

Editor’s note: Thomas Burr, The Tribune’s Washington bureau chief, did not play any role in the decision to name Hatch as the newspaper’s Utahn of the Year.

Past Utahn of the Year winners

  • 2016 — Madi Barney, whose advocacy encouraged BYU to create an Honor Code amnesty policy for students who report that they were sexually assaulted

  • 2015 — Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes

  • 2014 — Same-sex marriage plaintiffs

  • 2013 — Salt Lake County Attorney Sim Gill

  • 2012 — Mormons Building Bridges

  • 2011 — Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank

  • 2010 — Elizabeth, Lois and Mary Smart

  • 2009 — Elizabeth Smart

  • 2008 — Larry Miller

  • 2007 — First responders to tragedies including the Trolley Square shooting rampage and the Crandell Canyon Mine disaster

  • 2006 — Latino leaders Jorge Fierro, Andrew Valdez, Ruby Chacon and Alma Armendariz

  • 2005 — Pamela Atkinson, advocate for the poor

  • 2004 — Utahns killed in Iraq and Afghanistan

  • 2003 — Gov. Olene Walker

  • 2002 — LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley

  • 2001 — Winter Games organizer Mitt Romney

  • 2000 — Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson

  • 1999 — The letter that sparked the Olympic bribery scandal

  • 1998 — Mary Ann Kingston, who suffered a brutal beating after escaping plural marriage

  • 1997 — NBA MVP Karl Malone