First female House speaker in Utah history is tough on behalf of the people

Published: Saturday, March 5 2011 10:00 p.m. MST

Speaker of the House, Rebecca D. Lockhart, brings to order a session in the Utah House of Representatives in Salt Lake City, Utah Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Becky Lockhart was just weeks into her first session as a state Republican representative from Provo when she encountered her moment of truth. A male legislator from her own party got in her face.

During a break between meetings, he backed her into a corner, scolding and threatening her for not voting his way. He was angry; she was stunned. It was ugly enough that the confrontation drew the attention of others (who would later ask if she was all right).

So this was her test. He was trying to intimidate her into supporting his vote. What would she do? Lockhart was certainly vulnerable. She was new and young — barely 30 years old — and one of only a handful of females in a male domain. Could she be intimidated? Would the novice be eager to please and comply? Could she be her own woman in an arena that was so highly competitive and dominated by egos and testosterone?

After recovering from her shock, Lockhart gathered herself and fired back. "Who are you to tell me how to vote!?" she said. "I don't answer to you. I answer to my constituents."

She stood her ground and voted her own way. It was a defining moment.

"It really set me back," says Lockhart, sitting in her Capitol Hill office on a recent afternoon. "It wasn't polite. It was very pointed."

Lockhart has not only survived 13 years in the House since then, she has risen to the top. She is serving in her first session as speaker of the House — the first woman to hold the position in Utah. She won the job for the same reason that she refused to back down from that legislator years ago. She didn't want the powerful to dictate the agenda; she wanted a voice for constituents.

Ambitious and intense, Lockhart ran for leadership positions three times in the past decade — twice as assistant whip, once as majority whip — and lost each time before finally winning the assistant whip position. It was evident from the start that she had earned the respect of party leaders because after each loss they appointed her to leadership positions — twice as vice-chairwoman of appropriations, once as chairwoman for rules.

Last summer she decided to challenge incumbent Rep. Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, for the speakership because of what she called a concentration of power in the speaker's office. Proposed bills were being killed in that office before they even went to the rules committee, the first step of the process. The speaker — whether it was Clark, Greg Curtis, Marty Stephens or Mel Brown — had been limiting access to the political process by limiting what bills would be heard on the floor. Lockhart traveled throughout the state to make her sales pitch to other legislators — let the Legislature as a whole decide the merits of a bill, not the speaker, and then let the process work.

No one — including long-time lobbyist Doug Foxley and Mike Dmitrich, Utah's longest-serving politician with 40 years in the Legislature — can remember anyone defeating an incumbent for the speakership, but Lockhart somehow pulled it off. Clark himself expressed surprise after his defeat, claiming that he had had pledges of support from significantly more than 30 of the 58 members of the House GOP caucus. In a secret ballot, Lockhart won 30-28.

"My message resonated with my colleagues," says Lockhart. "They're ready for a different leadership style. This is not a personal issue with Dave. It's something that evolved in the House over time."

Lockhart literally leaves her office door open as much as possible throughout the day as a symbol that she and her office are accessible to everyone.

"It's a surprise victory to lots of people," says LaVarr Webb, an expert on Utah politics and a part-time Deseret News political columnist. "Clark had that locked up."

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