New Salt Lake County recorder, part of a national blue wave of women, will take over an office rocked by scandal and dizzying turnover

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rashelle Hobbs appears to be the only candidate in county-level positions up for election this year to unseat her incumbent opponent. She has 15 years of experience working for the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office, starting as a temporary employee and working her way up through numerous positions within the office.

Millcreek • There’s only dirt where the lawn should be in front of Rashelle Hobbs’ new home.

The recently elected Salt Lake County recorder — a Democrat fresh off a win against incumbent Republican Adam Gardiner — jokes later that when faced with a choice between putting in grass and running for election, she chose the latter.

“This was my first time that I ever ran for office,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune recently. “I don’t really consider myself a professional politician. I’m a public servant, and I work hard. If I were to describe myself, I’m more interested in the service and the work than the politics.”

Her decision to run was more than 30 years in the making, beginning when Hobbs was a young girl watching her grandfather George W. Diehl run for Tooele mayor — a position he held from 1983 to 1994.

Those races sometimes got ugly, she recalls. There was the time someone put horse manure in her grandfather’s mailbox. And when she’d go with him to honk-and-waves, many people didn’t wave back, and sometimes they did “with the middle finger.”

“I remember talking to my grandpa and saying, ‘Grandpa, these people are mean. Grandpa, these people are hateful,’” Hobbs, now 42, remembered. “He’s like, ‘Well, don’t worry about that. It’s OK as long as you know that what you’re doing is right. It’s OK. And one day, you’re going to be doing this, too.’”

Hobbs has spent 15 years working her way through the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office — answering phones, helping with passports and performing marriage ceremonies — up to chief deputy. But when the Salt Lake County Democratic Party approached her about running for county recorder, she remembered her grandfather’s mandate and said “yes.”

Q. Dang, the executive committee chair of the Salt Lake County Democratic Party, said Hobbs was an obvious pick to run for recorder, with years of experience and strong relationships with key players in the county.

“She’s a dynamic candidate and we were quite happy that she agreed to do it,” Dang said. “She worked hard getting voters to know her. She worked hard with get-out-the-vote, getting all the countywide constituents to kind of see, like, this is who she is, where she’s coming from and wasn’t just a name on a ballot.”

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, who has worked with Hobbs “longer than anybody,” said she’s excited to see what the new county recorder will accomplish.

“She’ll be very innovative,” Swensen said. “What I’ve seen in her was she was always willing to do whatever she could for the public. And, you know, go beyond in trying to make sure that they get what they needed. And that’s going to be a great service.”

Past turmoil in the recorder’s office

Hobbs will take over the recorder’s office in January as the only new face in county leadership and as the office’s fourth leader in 15 months after details emerged about the failing health of late Recorder Gary Ott.

Ott, a four-term Republican, remained in office for nearly four years after he was diagnosed with dementia before his re-election in 2014. His top staff had repeatedly denied he was suffering from a mental illness — even as his rapidly declining mental state came to public light. Had Ott remained in office, his term would have ended in 2020.

Julie Dole, the chief deputy who ran the office amid Ott’s public decline, was sworn in as acting recorder in August last year after Ott resigned from the post in an agreement worked out with family members who had obtained guardianship. Gardiner left his seat in the state Legislature when Republican delegates appointed him to replace Dole later that month. He was Hobbs’ opponent in the Nov. 6 election.

(Michael Mangum | Special to the Tribune) Adam Gardiner speaks during the recorder election at the county Republican Central Committee Meeting at Jordan High School in Sandy on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017. Gardiner was elected Salt Lake County recorder.

With that history in mind, Hobbs said she hopes to provide “a real sense of team” and a stability the office hasn’t seen in recent years.

“It’s unfortunate what happened with Gary,” she said. “In my interactions with him at the county, he was a lovely man. And I think that it is tragic that when you Google his name, rather than reading about the kind, gentle person he is, it’s scandal. And that’s a shame and it could have been avoided.” (Ott died Oct. 19, 2017.)

Among the changes Hobbs would like to see in the office when she takes over include increased transparency and openness to the public and an emphasis on providing quality customer service — possibly by changing the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours of the office to be more flexible.

That will also benefit women in the office, she said, who she wants to ensure have the flexibility they need to succeed as they work to build their careers and take care of their kids.

Hobbs, who has two children, said the need to have more women in public office was part of her calculation in deciding to run. And though she believes the recorder’s position should probably be nonpartisan, she’ll assume office as part of a national blue wave of women and thinks her commitment to equality may set her apart from past leaders in the seat.

In the final weeks of her campaign, Hobbs’ grandfather died at age 99 — two days before he received his by-mail ballot.

“We had a conversation and I told him, ‘It’s going to be OK, Grandpa,’” she recalled. “‘Win or lose, I’m going to be OK.’ And I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, ‘I’m not worried about you winning; I’m worried about what comes next.’”

Until the end, she said Diehl proudly supported her campaign and even stuck a lawn sign in the dirt at his hospice center proclaiming “Rashelle Hobbs for county recorder.”

While he didn’t get the chance to vote for her, Hobbs said she still felt he was with her on election night.

“And his wisdom and guidance will be with me as I assume my new role as the county recorder.”