Dan Liljenquist rising from ashes of plane crash

Published: Sunday, Jan. 23 2011 9:00 p.m. MST

For several years Liljenquist toyed with the idea of running for office, but an irresolvable personal issue kept him out of politics.

"The biggest hurdle I had with getting involved (politically) was I didn't think anybody could pronounce my last name," he said. "The J has a Y sound, and it throws people off. I just had this mental block in my mind, that (getting elected) will never happen in Utah."

He ultimately overcame his surname sensitivity in 2008 and filed to run for the 23rd District senate seat that the late Dan Eastman was vacating. In the Republican primary on June 25, Liljenquist received 64 percent of the vote to defeat Ronald Mortensen. After winning the primary, a victory for Liljenquist in the subsequent November general election seemed all but assured given the Republican loyalties of his electorate.

But before making it to Election Day, Liljenquist first trekked to Guatemala in mid-August for a service project organized by Utah-based CHOICE Humanitarian. Several of his FOCUS employees joined him on the humanitarian trip to build new classrooms in rural Guatemalan locales.

After the plane crash, reality crystallized for Liljenquist that his physical injuries were quite extensive — one ankle, for example, was broken in 16 places — but they would not be life threatening.

While his body consistently healed, Liljenquist's psyche proved to be a much more complicated matter.

"I think guilt is a natural part of (my survival)," he said. "I was president of the company and I had four of my employees with me and I'm the one who came home. … Having such a close brush with death and having lost some close friends, life seems like a very short, very fragile journey."

Liljenquist decisively won the general election from his hospital bed.

The beginning of Liljenquist's legislative career had all the makings of a very interesting case study: take a relatively young man who is bright, well educated, impeccably trained, financially comfortable and able to set his own work schedule; imbue him with palpable immediacy and urgency; and turn him loose in a citizen legislature.

Liljenquist immediately found himself drawn to fiscal policy like a moth to light.

"I'm laser-focused on the fiscal issues," he explains. "That's my background. My training's in that. I'm comfortable doing that, having worked at Bain and worked at ACS. That's the stuff I love.

"What I've tried to stake out is that I will jump in on the hard issues, I will figure it out, I will bring people along, and then I will try to fix our long-term structural problems, our fiscal problems primarily."

Liljenquist's peers quickly came to value his enthusiasm and expertise for the complex fiscal issues.

"Dan's economic and financial acumen are unparalleled in Utah politics," said Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George. "Given the state of the economy and pending financial crises in state and federal government, his rise in politics is both timely and?fortunate for?Utah citizens."

The first significant issue that piqued Liljenquist's inner economist was pension reform — essentially, the retirement system for state employees needed to be revamped or else it risked bankrupting Utah. Liljenquist spent 10 months poring over data, building bipartisan consensus and ultimately passing a bill that other states are now attempting to emulate.

Mission accomplished.

"Dan Liljenquist is in the top 1 percent of our elected officials in Utah," said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. "He took on an incredibly thorny issue with the state pension plan. It's one of those problems where it's usually too difficult for a state part-time legislator to ever dare invest the time and effort because the chance of solving it seems too low.

"But nonetheless, I think he did an amazing job with it. I think all Utahns owe Dan a great debt of gratitude for taking on (pension reform)."

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