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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Candidate Jason Chaffetz talks with voters in Bluffdale. Chaffetz was chief of staff for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

What does it take to change a life forever?

For Jason Chaffetz, it was a high school vice principal asking a group of Chaffetz's high school soccer buddies if any one of them would try out to be the football team's place kicker.

That brief conversation led Chaffetz to Brigham Young University, where he met his wife, changed his religion and got involved in politics.

Now Chaffetz, 41, seeks the Utah Republican Party's 3rd Congressional District's nomination. If he wins the June 24 primary, Chaffetz will oust six-term GOP incumbent Chris Cannon and face a relatively-unknown Democrat. The 3rd District is heavily Republican, and the primary winner is likely to go to Washington, D.C., next year.

"Place-kicking and coming to BYU changed (the direction of) my life more than anything else," says Chaffetz. It was a road the young Arizona high school junior would never have predicted.

The high school official "came up to a bunch of us soccer players at lunch — we were sitting on a picnic table — and asked if any one of us would like to try out as the football team's place kicker. No one else tried out. I did. I got the job and everything changed."

His senior year, Chaffetz went to live with his divorced father in a small Colorado ski town, with only a few hundred kids in the school. He signed up with a place-kicker coach and got some serious training and coaching. And he had the chance to attend several colleges on a place-kicking scholarship. Through various contacts he got the chance to try out for legendary BYU football coach LaVell Edwards.

And in the summer of 1985, Chaffetz rolled into Provo, driving his Honda CR-X hatchback with all his possessions in the rear.

Chaffetz says he's the kind of guy who is willing to try things — things he has never done before — work hard, learn from experience and take advantage of openings.

"People say things get done in this world by the people who show up. Well, I raised my hand at that picnic table. I learned how to place kick. I got a college education. Everything came from that."

During college, Chaffetz got internships at Nu Skin Enterprises, a cosmetic firm that started in Utah County. He got internships at KUTV, Ch. 2, working as a sports reporter/commentator.

(His most embarrassing moments on camera: Sitting in a hot tub with Dave Fox during the 1989 Holiday Bowl for a live shot, sweating and stammering uncontrollably the one time they let him anchor a weekend sportscast.)

His father had been married to Kitty Dukakis as a young man. That marriage ended in divorce. His dad married his mom, while Kitty married Michael Dukakis, who would become the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee.

Chaffetz was BYU's starting place kicker in 1988 but took time that spring and summer to help Michael Dukakis' Utah campaign. The political bug had bitten — although Chaffetz would soon turn into a Ronald Reagan Republican.

"If you are going to mention my connection with anyone (famous), say that my godfather is Sandy Koufax," said Chaffetz, tired of the Dukakis discussion.

While Chaffetz hasn't seen the famous Los Angeles left-handed pitcher in 35 years, he says he still has "tons of fun stuff" in Koufax memorabilia — left over from the time Koufax and Chaffetz's father were friends in the 1960s (and Koufax agreed to be baby Chaffetz's godfather).

Chaffetz said he still owns one BYU football record: The most extra points in one game, 10 against the University of Utah. "I had to beg Coach Edwards to keep me in the game, kicking, so I could get the record," says Chaffetz.

After graduation, Chaffetz went to work full-time at Nu Skin. Out of office in 1989, Reagan came to Utah to speak at the annual summer Nu Skin international convention in February 1991. Chaffetz was assigned as Reagan's advance man — spending the whole day with the former president.

"He was very kind to me. He even invited me in to his meeting with the (LDS) Church's First Presidency," recalls Chaffetz. At the end of the day, Chaffetz asked for Reagan's autograph. He signed a piece of paper. But he also took off his tie clasp and cuff links, giving them to Chaffetz. Along with a picture of the two signed later by Reagan, Chaffetz created a framed Reagan shrine at his home office in remembrance of his time with the former president.

His day with Reagan was the first anniversary of Chaffetz being baptized into the LDS Church. "I've always believed it was more than a coincidence" that he got time with Reagan and the First Presidency on that anniversary, said Chaffetz.

Meeting through mutual friends at BYU, Chaffetz married Julie Johnson in 1991, although ironically they grew up close to one another in Mesa, Ariz., without ever meeting. They now have three children, a boy and two girls.

After he graduated from BYU with a communications degree, Chaffetz went to work at Nu Skin, eventually working his way up to manage part of the firm's international sales area. He and Julie spent around a year in Australia overseeing Nu Skin there. Altogether, he worked 11 years at Nu Skin.

He left the firm to take a new job with an international coal-processing firm, where his brother also worked, moving back to Colorado. But that job ended when the firm sold its subdivisions where Chaffetz worked.

Chaffetz started Maxtera, a marketing/communication firm with his brother. Their top client was a firm in Arizona, where he moved for around nine months with his young family. But Chaffetz said he and Julie missed Utah County. "It's home to us." So he quit and moved back to Utah.

Around the same time in 2003 he heard that Jon Huntsman Jr. might run for governor in 2004. "I knew of him and wanted to meet him." A friend set up an appointment, and soon Chaffetz was working on the campaign as communications director. When the campaign manager quit, Huntsman made Chaffetz the manager.

"I like to joke that I wasn't qualified. I'd never run a campaign before. He said that was OK. He'd never been a candidate before. We learned together." After Huntsman's victory, Chaffetz said he was surprised Huntsman asked him to be his chief of staff. "I hadn't done that, either. He said that was OK. He'd never been a governor before."

Chaffetz said he learned a lot with Huntsman — candidate and governor — mainly how to form policy and implement it.

"We had a very good first year" of the Huntsman administration, says Chaffetz. "Not trying to be pretentious, I know I can be a good congressman and represent these 850,000 people. I don't have all the answers. But as chief of staff I saw up close that I can do" the congressman's job "better than Chris Cannon, every day."

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After almost a year as chief of staff, Chaffetz resigned and went back to Maxtera, where his main clients are a subsection of the Ford Motor Co., Omni Brokerage in South Jordan and Orchard Securities in Sandy. Chaffetz said his clients have nothing to do with his campaign. And the Maxtera Web site says the firm is taking on no new clients until Chaffetz's campaign is over.

In the state Republican Convention, Chaffetz came within nine votes of eliminating Cannon. "Getting so close (and failing) is painful. Now we have to beat him in the primary. Cannon has to go, either me or someone else — the public wants a change, now or in two years."


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com