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Congressman Jason Chaffetz, family differ on gay marriage

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 22 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Gay rights groups are flabbergasted that Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is leading a charge to block gay marriage in the District of Columbia, since his family has some interesting gay and liberal ties.

After all, his father, John Chaffetz, wrote a complimentary book about a gay couple that competed in the "Amazing Race" reality TV show. And liberal, former Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis (whose wife, Kitty, was once married to Chaffetz's father) has been helping the young Chaffetz to pass legislation.

So gay groups are questioning in widespread Internet posts why Chaffetz, with such ties, could do such a thing. They wish aloud that he would listen to his more liberal relations, and stop his pledges to try to overturn a D.C. ordinance signed by its mayor last week to allow gay marriage.

Chaffetz told the Deseret News on Monday that such groups should not hold their breath for that.

"I see my position more as a support of traditional marriage than it is an attack on gay marriage. I think I have a core moral belief in traditional marriage, and I'm willing to stand up and stand tall for traditional marriage," he said.

Although Chaffetz is a freshman, he is the ranking Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees District of Columbia operations. So he said it is part of that job to announce GOP opposition to the new ordinance, and vow to fight it since federal law gives Congress 30 days to overturn any ordinance passed by the D.C. Council.

"It has led to a whole series of very aggressive personal attacks, but go ahead, I don't care. It doesn't phase me much," Chaffetz said. Many of the attacks draw attention to how his father wrote the book "Gay Reality" about the gay couple of Bill Bartek and Joe Baldassare who gained attention as reality show contestants. And attacks point out Chaffetz's ties to Dukakis.

But Chaffetz explains, "I am the only member of my family who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am a convert." He joined the church two months after he graduated from Brigham Young University, where he had been recruited as a football placekicker.

Because of that church background, Chaffetz said he is more conservative than many in his extended family, although he said it does include both Republicans and Democrats.

"My younger brother Alex is about as conservative as it gets, other than maybe Attila the Hun," he joked. "My older half-brother (John Dukakis — who changed his last name from Chaffetz to match that of his famous stepfather, Michael Dukakis) is about as liberal as it gets."

That doesn't mean that Chaffetz hasn't sought out the opinion of his half-brother, a former actor who had roles in such films as "Jaws 2" and in such TV series as "Family Ties" and "Taxi."

"I showed my brother John a draft of a campaign piece we prepared. And he said, 'I disagree with everything you say here.' And I thought, 'We have success. We must be on to something,'" Chaffetz said.

In contrast, Chaffetz said his father is a "very conservative person," his book about the gay couple notwithstanding. "I've talked to him about some things, but not about this (gay marriage)."

While Chaffetz is not biologically related to Michael Dukakis, Chaffetz said they became well acquainted and spent time together because John Dukakis would spend the school year with Dukakis and John's mother, Kitty, and the summers with his father and his half-brothers, Jason and Alex, and their mother.

Rep. Chaffetz even headed the Dukakis campaign at BYU in 1988, before his conversions to be a Republican and a Mormon. He said he and Dukakis still keep in close contact, and the former Massachusetts governor has helped him make some Democratic contacts needed to do such things as pass House legislation to ban use of "whole-body imaging" machines at airports.

"One of the interesting phenomena is that Michael Dukakis has been very helpful in opening a lot of doors that wouldn't have been opened otherwise. Some very liberal Democrats have given me the time of day that wouldn't normally have done so, particularly some of the people from Massachusetts," Chaffetz said.

"He (Dukakis) is a passionate believer in good public service, and considers party secondary. He wants to do some things that I could never support, but I respect him," Chaffetz said. "I talked to him the day before yesterday. We keep in contact."

But, again, Chaffetz said he believes strongly in defending traditional marriage, and no one should expect differently even if he has some liberal friends and family. "I'm my own guy on this one," he said.

Still, the Utah Log Cabin Republicans on Monday called for him to change, issuing a statement that it wants him to "get back to tending the issues we sent him to Washington to represent, and stop trying to force others to adhere to his misguided interpretation of what makes a real marriage."

e-mail: lee@desnews.com

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