Jan Graham, Utah’s first and only female attorney general, dies at 74

She was the last Democrat and only woman to win statewide office in Utah.

Jan Graham, a former Utah attorney general and the last Democrat to win a statewide election, died Monday night of ovarian cancer, according to longtime friends.

She was 74 years old.

Graham served two terms as attorney general from 1993 to 2001 and is the only female candidate to win statewide office and on her own in Utah. (Former Lt. Gov. Olene Walker and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson won statewide elections as part of a ticket.) She was also the last Utah attorney general whose tenure was not marred by scandal.

Gov. Spencer Cox on Friday ordered flags at state facilities to be lowered to half-staff in Graham’s memory.

As attorney general, Graham spearheaded the state’s efforts to sue tobacco companies, advocated for domestic violence resources and expanded the state’s Children’s Justice Centers, created to help abused children prepare for criminal trials.

“This is an issue that really has touched my heart,” Graham told an interviewer in 2000. “This is the one (issue) I kind of wake up in the middle of the night about. I feel like it’s a great opportunity and a calling, really, to use the office while I’m there to be a voice for ending family violence.”

Tracey Tabet, who worked in the Graham administration and now heads the 22 Utah Children’s Justice Centers, said her experience with Graham “was truly life-changing.”

“She was a strong role model for women, a champion for victims — especially children — and saw in the A.G.’s office a place that had so much potential to do good for the people of Utah, even though it was not well understood by the public at the time,” Tabet said. “Rarely does a day go by that I don’t think about how lucky I was that she took a chance on a young girl from rural Utah 30 years ago. She was an incredible mentor and a dear friend.”

Graham also sparred with then-Gov. Mike Leavitt over her resistance to defending a strict anti-abortion law, her unwillingness to fight for Utah’s English-only law, and her refusal to back a Vermont law banning same-sex marriage. At the same time, she dueled with the Legislature over how it spent the proceeds from tobacco litigation.

At one point, legislation was passed stripping power from Graham’s office, but she fought back with a public relations campaign. The law was repealed after a deal was struck allowing the governor to hire his own legal counsel.

(Ryan Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jan Graham gives a hug during a Boy Scouts ceremony.

During the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton, Graham publicly challenged congressional Republicans to swear that they had never had an extramarital affair themselves.

And, with the emergence of the internet during her term, she focused efforts on illegal online sales of alcohol and tobacco into the state, identity theft and child pornography, founding the office’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Reed Richards, Graham’s chief deputy throughout her tenure, said she took a different approach than her predecessors.

“She focused not just on what the office always has — going after the bad guys — but going at the root cause of the problems and finding ways to stop it before it happens,” Richards said, pointing specifically to her work on domestic violence, child abuse and gang prevention. “She was a very special person to me and, I think, the state.”

Graham earned her law degree from the University of Utah and was hired at the firm of Jones, Waldo, Holbrook and McDonough. In 2006, Graham wrote in the Utah Bar Journal that after interviewing at the firm, she was shown that she had received the highest scores, but there had been a question mark by her name because, the head of the recruiting committee told her, “there were some questions about hiring more women.”

She wrote that she was asked to meet with the president of the firm who asked her, “Are you sure you want to be a lawyer? Don’t you want to raise a family?” She told him she wanted both. Graham landed the job, eventually becoming a partner.

Navigating the male-dominated legal world, Graham said she saw the need for women to band together and support one another. She and Christine Durham — who was then a judge and later became a Utah Supreme Court justice — founded Women Lawyers of Utah. In 1984, WLU organized a successful boycott of the all-male Alta Club, and Graham became one of the first four women admitted to the organization.

In 1990, Graham was encouraged to apply for the position of solicitor general under then-Attorney General Paul Van Dam and got the job.

When Van Dam announced he would not seek reelection two years later, Graham launched her own bid for the office while pregnant with her first child and narrowly beat Iron County Attorney Scott Burns in 1992 — dubbed the “Year of The Woman” in Utah politics because it saw the election of Graham, Lt. Gov. Walker and former congresswoman Karen Shepherd. She defeated Burns again four years later.

Shepherd and Graham were friends before they ran, and Shepherd said Graham was proud that she had helped make Utah one of the top states in steering tobacco settlement money to smoking prevention and reduction programs.

“The other states used it to build roads, swimming pools and golf courses,” Shepherd said Thursday. “She cared about the law, about Utah, about doing things right. She was a pioneer as the first and only woman elected statewide to office.”

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Jan Graham listens to a legislative committee meeting in 1999.

Former Utah Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell, who said he worked closely with Graham during his time in the Legislature, said Graham’s “moral compass and integrity never wavered.”

“She tirelessly advocated for the principles of fairness and equality, leaving an indelible mark on the legal landscape,” Howell said Thursday. “Graham’s passion, resilience and leadership in the face of adversity serve as an inspiration to all.”

Graham married her high school sweetheart, Buzz Hunt, after reconnecting with him at their 20-year reunion at Salt Lake City’s South High School. They had one child, Willie, together. She was also a stepmother to Elisabeth, a daughter from Hunt’s previous marriage.

After leaving office, Graham returned to private practice and kept a low profile, staying out of politics, despite frequently being encouraged to run for office.

“She was one who didn’t really like to be out among the public. She was a really private person,” said Salt Lake County Council member Jim Bradley, who came to be friends with Graham and Hunt when their kids attended school together. “She put on the mask when she had to during the political stuff, but by and large she just wanted to keep to herself.”

Graham and her husband moved to southern Utah, where friends say she enjoyed traveling and was an avid hiker and pickleball player.

“General Graham was a historic legal and political figure as the first and only woman in Utah history to be elected as attorney general, and the last Democrat elected to statewide office,” the Utah attorney general’s office said in a news release. “Beyond these unique and significant milestones, she was a dedicated public servant and substantive lawyer who championed noteworthy causes as A.G. that continue to benefit many in Utah.”