Jim Hansen, who served longer in the U.S. House than any Utahn, dies at age 86

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Rep. Jim Hansen at his Farmington office, Tuesday, May 16, 2017.

Farmington • The first thing one would notice when entering Jim Hansen’s Farmington cabin located east of the Lagoon amusement park was the wall filled with framed political cartoons, many poking fun of him.

Hansen, Utah’s longest-serving member of the U.S. House, died Wednesday. He was 86.

“With Congressman Jim Hansen’s passing, Utah has lost a true statesman," said Sen. Orrin Hatch. "Whether it was in the Navy, in the state Legislature, or in the halls of Congress, Jim served with honor and distinction, always putting principle before party and others before self.

“Utah would not be what it is today without Congressman Jim Hansen,” said Hatch, who will leave the Senate in January after serving 42 years there. “I’m grateful to have known such a remarkable man and even more grateful to have called him a friend.”

Arrangements for services were pending.

Hansen retired from Congress in 2003 after winning 11 straight elections, representing the state’s 1st Congressional District from 1981 to 2003.

He kept memories of his Washington days all over his comfortable bungalow, which had served as his campaign headquarters. And for the years after he left the nation’s capital, he would entertain a new generation of politicians at that abode, generous with tips on how to navigate the political waters.

“People from both political parties have visited me here over the years for advice on how to run their campaigns,” Hansen said during an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune in 2017.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Rep. Jim Hansen at his Farmington office, Tuesday, May 16, 2017.

While offering his wisdom and experience to anyone wanting to hear it, Hansen became less engaged in national politics in his retirement years, living a quiet life in Farmington and keeping up with his and wife Ann’s five children and more than a dozen grandchildren.

But he paid enough attention to observe a more divided political landscape than when he was in Congress.

“I felt like we did a pretty good job of reaching across the aisle, working together,” he told The Tribune.

A fiercely partisan Republican, Hansen nevertheless was a strong believer in a healthy two-party system and said he had great respect for many of the Democrats who have held elected positions in Utah.

“I was in awe of Cal Rampton,” Hansen said of the three-term Democratic governor who ran the state in the 1960s and ’70s. “He had such a sharp mind.”

But his favorite governor was the late Norm Bangerter, a Republican, one of his closest friends and the man who replaced him as Utah House speaker when he left that post to run for Congress in 1980.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert praised Hansen as someone "drawn into public service for all the right reasons.“

He recalled Hansen’s motivation to first run for local office was a Farmington water system that needed improvements.

“He will be missed,” Herbert said. “We need more public servants like Jim Hansen.”

Rep. Rob Bishop, who holds the 1st Congressional District seat that Hansen occupied for so long, called his predecessor and mentor a “trailblazer," as well as “a good man, a fine leader and a cherished friend.”

“I will be forever grateful for the time he took to mentor me," Bishop said. "His impact on my life, and many others, cannot be overstated.” Bishop said. “Jim accomplished much without ever succumbing to arrogance.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said he personally feels the loss of his friend and "the state of Utah will sorely miss this faithful public servant.”

Outgoing Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, called Hansen “a tireless advocate and champion for Hill Air Force Base, multiple use of public lands, improving our transportation and water infrastructure and many other issues.”

Hansen had been an elected representative at the city, state and federal levels — winning a total of 19 elections. He never lost a political race until he ran for governor in 2004, several years after he retired from Congress. In a crowded field, he lost at the GOP state convention, and Jon Huntsman Jr. eventually won the seat.

A Depression baby born in 1932, Hansen grew up in Salt Lake City and was part of the famed East High School Class of 1951, which produced two senators (Jake Garn and Bob Bennett), one congressman (Hansen) a Utah Supreme Court justice (Daniel Stewart), a Mormon apostle (Henry B. Eyring), a college president (Doug Alder), and a county commissioner (John Preston Creer).

“Those guys were the big shots in the school,” Hansen said. “I was pretty much a nobody. I had a job after school, [so] I didn’t have a chance to participate in the activities.”

After attending one year at the University of Utah, Hansen joined the U.S. Navy, where he served for four years. He returned to the U. but then went on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for two years.

“I was pretty old by the time I graduated” in 1961 with a business degree, he said.

That same year, he was elected to the Farmington City Council and kept that part-time position while earning a living as an insurance agent for 12 years. In 1973, he was elected to the state Legislature, also a part-time post, and eventually rose to House speaker.

That was his launching pad for his congressional bid, which paid off with his defeat of five-term Democrat Gunn McKay in 1980.

Hansen went to Congress the same year Ronald Reagan, his favorite president, was elected, and he immediately established himself as one of its most conservative members.

“I was always rated among the top 10 most conservative members of Congress,” Hansen said proudly. “And Wayne Owens [the late Utah Democrat who served alongside him for six years] was always rated among the top 10 liberals. Wayne was a great guy. I liked him a lot. But we disagreed on everything.”

When the Republicans took over Congress in the mid-1990s, Hansen, because of his experience as House speaker on the state level, was often called on to sit in the speaker’s chair when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia was not in attendance.

“I knew the parliamentary rules,” Hansen said, and the thing that I learned that makes you effective is having a good command of the rules.”

His most prominent role came as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, a position that his successor, Bishop, who just won election to a ninth term, now holds. (However, with the Democratic takeover of the House in the midterm elections, Bishop now will be relegated to the minority.)

“People didn’t realize this, but I was always a strong public lands guy,” Hansen said. “I was responsible for creating more wilderness than anybody.”

That would come as a surprise to environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which often went to battle with Hansen over wilderness protections.

“Representative Hansen was an outspoken opponent of protecting Utah’s redrock wilderness and had a legacy of failed attempts to exploit and destroy some of the nation’s most remarkable federal public lands,” Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said Wednesday.

“We frequently locked horns with Representative Hansen and were fortunate enough to derail his most destructive proposals." Bloch added, "You had to give him credit though, he never stopped trying.”

Hansen said he stuck to following the 1964 law governing wilderness, while environmental organizations often promoted going beyond that.

“I would object when they tried to [usurp] small towns or existing roads,” Hansen said.

Once he sparked outrage among the environmentalists for suggesting the government sell Great Basin National Park in Nevada, although he insisted he was a fan of national parks.

“The federal government does a good job managing the public lands,” he said. “The Forest Service, the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and the Park Service all do a good job. But you always have to watch out for overreach.”

Hansen also served as chairman of the House Ethics Committee, a job he did not particularly like because of the adversarial nature of the panel toward his colleagues being investigated.

One of Hansen’s favorite roles was serving on the Base Realignment and Closure commission, which decided which military bases were expendable and could be discontinued to use the defense budget in more productive ways.

He took pride in being able to keep Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah — a cause that his successor, Bishop, has taken up with enthusiasm.

Tribune reporter Thomas Burr contributed to this report.

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman Jr., is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.