Doug Robinson: Mark Shurtleff: Attorney general tackles Utah's toughest issues

Published: Sunday, Dec. 10 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and his daughter Danielle. Shurtleff and wife M'Liss have five children.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

Mark Shurtleff, Utah's attorney general, recently held a family meeting to discuss his political future. Should he run for office again in 2008?

His wife, M'Liss, and his children came down squarely against it.

"Daddy, I don't want you to be AG anymore," his daughter Danielle once told him tearfully.

Why would she? Shurtleff is considered the literal Antichrist by some polygamist groups. His Utah State Bar number is only further confirmation in their minds — 4666, or "for" 666.

He has received death threats, one of which led to the arrest of a man with a sawed-off shotgun. At times law enforcement officials have urged him to wear a bulletproof vest and avoid windows in his house. He feels compelled to carry a pistol wherever he goes. (On the other hand, some polygamists reason that since he's the Antichrist, he can't be killed, so why bother.)

His wife and children complain that he is gone too much. M'Liss argues that even if another job took him away from home frequently, at least he would make more money. Recently, the Legislature raised his salary to $90,000, which is what he was earning as a private attorney 15 years ago. Of the 225 attorneys who work for him in the Attorney General's Office, about one-third of them make more money than their boss.

"He could make three times as much if he were a private attorney," says one Salt Lake lawyer.

So will he run?

"I just held a fund-raiser," he says. "My plan is to run. But it's hard. There are things I'm not going to be able to finish in the next two years."

The 49-year-old Shurtleff will try to finish what he has begun, and there is much to finish. He has opened a number of Pandora's boxes in his six years on the job.

Shurtleff is a Republican and a Mormon, but if you think you can label him, you're mistaken. He has taken on polygamy, lobbied for hate-crimes legislation and opposed a proposed amendment to the Utah Constitution that would ban gay marriages, though he said he would defend that amendment after the Legislature passed it. He supported media shield laws and personal gun rights and has sided with illegal aliens on some issues. But the hallmark of his office so far has been his aggressive campaign against polygamy, turning the state's unofficial don't-ask-don't-tell policy on its head.

His stances on these issues have so irritated some fellow Republicans that they threatened to cut funding for his office. He found himself opposing politicians on certain issues who had helped get him elected.

"My brother Kevin is always talking about principles," says Shurtleff. "Don't test the polls, don't worry about whether something will get you votes — that's not the reason to make a decision."

So he expects to run for a third term, which is ironic because after the last legislative session he was so disillusioned by political back-room deal-making — specifically, by politicians refusing to vote for a certain bill because the bill's sponsor once refused to vote for his bill on another issue — that he told his division chiefs, "I'm done. I don't want to do this anymore."

Shurtleff, a former naval officer and a drill sergeant's son, will tell you he is not the same man he was when he first took office, not the same black-and-white, law-and-order man. He says he has become more compassionate and empathetic. Wrestling a knife away from one of your daughters with your bare hands will do that to a man.

So will sitting in a room with a victim of polygamy who is telling her story and sobbing. That's when he has a sense of mission about his job.

Shurtleff risked almost everything to campaign for the attorney general's job. He went into debt, spent the family's savings and cleaned out his kids' college funds, all for a position that offered a $15,000 pay cut.

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