Mike Dmitrich

A meeting early this year with a doctor who wanted to promote a controversial piece of health-care legislation might have saved Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich's life.

Dmitrich, 67, and the longest-serving lawmaker currently on the Hill, had stopped by the doctor's office on a snowy evening last January on his way back to Price to hear the pitch for a bill that, had it passed, would have forced health-care plans to let patients pick their own doctors.

The meeting went well, Dmitrich recalls, and at the end, the doctor happened to offer him a body scan — a virtual physical that images the body's internal organs so they can be checked for abnormalities sometimes overlooked by a regular check-up.

"I said, 'Let's do it.' So they did the head and the neck, and obviously there's nothing there," Dmitrich said, laughing for a moment at his joke. "Then they did the chest. . . . There's this black spot. It just showed up plain."

It was cancer, and it had to be removed right away. Within weeks after the surgery, Dmitrich — now one term away from being the longest-serving Utah legislator ever — was back on the floor of the Senate, leading his party as he has done for most of his 37 years in office.

"People keep asking" about his health, Dmitrich said. "The short answer? To my knowledge, I am cured, but they have to watch it for five years." After his operation, he was getting an X-ray every three months. His doctors decided in August he could wait six months until the next one.

About the only aspect of his life still affected is his golf game, Dmitrich said. "I started playing too early," he acknowledged. The former Carbon High School football star relegated to getting his sports fix on the golf course believes the 5 1/2-hour surgery wrecked his swing, at least temporarily.

"Plus, I lost all my strength. It's starting to come back now. My handicap went from a nine to a 13," Dmitrich said. "It really hurts" not to be as competitive on the course.

The minority leader describes himself as a semi-retired consultant to the mining industry, but he said he isn't ready to give up politics anytime soon. Chances are good the ever-competitive Dmitrich will run for at least one more term if only to break a record.

"The record for the longest-serving legislator up there is 42 years. That's (former Sen.) Haven Barlow," he said. "So I'd have to run one more time to do that." Another term would put Dmitrich at 44 years.

The coal miner's son said he's never really had too hard a time winning re-election during a political career that began when he abandoned the mines for good after his father died in a cave-in.

He'd left Utah State University and a full-ride football scholarship due to an injury, planning to work for a year in the mines. One year became three, but as sudden as the knock on his door one morning, he was done.

"It was the sheriff's deputy," Dmitrich said. "He said, 'You're dad's covered up. You ought to come. . . . I went up there and they'd just pulled the bodies out." That's when he realized, "Maybe I ought to get out of the mines."

Although he has worked for the industry in government affairs since then, Dmitrich never went underground again; he didn't even return to the mine to clean out his locker.

Handling government affairs for a local bank, along with a high profile as a referee for just about every sport in the area, brought him to the attention of the Democratic Party. At the time, the party leaders were looking for someone to run for the Utah House from one of their only strongholds in Republican-dominated Utah. They turned to Dmitrich, then just 31 years old.

Unlike his predecessors, Dmitrich didn't antagonize the GOP majority. "I said I'll never be that way. I don't think that was good for the party." Soon, he was winning re-election and then leadership positions.

Instead, he adopted what he calls a "schmooze style. I thought it was pretty effective." But some Democrats didn't, and Dmitrich eventually lost his House leadership position to a group that saw itself as younger and more aggressive.

Dmitrich regained his leadership role after he was elected to the Senate. Often called old-school, he said he learned how to get things done as a young man in a rough town.

"I always say it's a lot like when I used to go to the bars," he said. "I'd always find the biggest, toughest guy in there and make friends with him in case I got into a fight. And I do the same thing politically. You pick the biggest, toughest guy — which happens to be the Republican party — and make friends."

One GOP member and friend is former House Speaker Nolan Karras, also a candidate for governor last year.

"We probably couldn't be more different, but you can trust Mike Dmitrich," said Karras, an investment adviser in Roy. "He's just a guy you can take to the bank."

The pair collaborated on getting legislation through, Karras said. "I knew I could trust him, and he could trust me," he said, praising Dmitrich's willingness to cooperate with the majority party. "If you want to be effective, here's a technique that's been proven over and over again."

Another Republican who counts Dmitrich as a friend is former Senate President Lane Beattie. Even though Dmitrich was not in leadership during his entire tenure as Senate president, Beattie said, "many times I had to work through Mike to get things accomplished."

Beattie, now the head of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, said Dmitrich's attitude "is never 'let me grandstand for publicity.'

"It's a matter of how he gets things done quietly and straightforward," Beattie said. "Because of that, you try not to disrespect him either."

Dmitrich said he has fought some battles but seldom felt the need to take the fight public. He said the criticism he's heard over the years from members of his own party doesn't bother him because "my constituents, my friends, know who I am."

One victory he counts as a result of his style is saving his own Senate district from extensive redistricting in 2001. Other Democrats, including the party's only member of Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, saw their districts reconfigured dramatically.

That, Dmitrich said, was "critical. Not just for me, but to keep a (Democratic) senator from Carbon County, which we've had since statehood." He calls himself an "old-school Democrat, who believes in education, a living wage, safe working conditions and decent health care.

"I think if every Democrat believed that," he said, "we'd be a lot better off."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com