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Media darling Jason Chaffetz is 'having the time of my life' as member of Congress

Published: Monday, Jan. 4 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Rep. Jason Chaffetz and his wife, Julie, pose for a picture at the Capitol dome in Washington, D.C.

Jason Chaffetz Office

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SALT LAKE CITY — He's often on CNN, Fox News, CNBC and MSNBC, not to mention the Glenn Beck show. He has his own Internet reality program on CNN.com. National newspapers quote him regularly. He is the ranking Republican on a subcommittee. And he has been entrusted by party leaders with some prime slots for debate and committee questioning.

And he's only a freshman.

And Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, says, "I'm having the time of my life" after his first year in Congress.

No House freshman in Utah history, and maybe U.S. history, has attracted so much positive media attention (although a few may have attracted it negatively for scandals, such as when the husband of former Rep. Enid Greene, R-Utah, was exposed for fraudulently claiming to be a millionaire, or former Rep. Douglas Stringfellow, R-Utah, falsely claimed he had been an heroic spy).

After all, House freshmen have been historically told to "go along to get along," and to be seen and not heard as they worked for future power. Chaffetz, 42, broke that mold with a bang.

"When I set out, I knew if we worked hard, voted right and did a great job communicating that we would be very successful. And I think we have done all three of those," he said.

But communicating has been his strong suit, as he has found ways to attract and keep the attention of national news media.

He says he didn't intentionally set out to do that. In fact, the first time he was called to be on a national news show, he called party leaders to see if that would be OK.

"They laughed," he said. "They said until we do a great job of communicating, we won't be in the job of legislating because we're in the minority. So take every opportunity to share our message."

He added, "After the first year, I think even they're amazed. I get teased because I get maybe more interviews than they do sometimes."

That started innocently enough when he attracted attention for sleeping on a cot in his office to save money, and for taping "cot-side chats" for the Internet to talk about issues. He volunteered to go on the comedic "Colbert Report," and took a ribbing for losing leg wrestling matches with the host.

That led CNN to decide to use him as one of two members for an online Internet show, "The Freshman Year," featuring him learning and pushing through his first year and as Chaffetz says, "making fun of my lifestyle, or lack thereof."

When he became the ranking Republican on a less-than-coveted subcommittee that oversees District of Columbia operations, local media in Washington sought him out for comment on issues there — and all members of Congress and reporters covering it saw his quotes because they live in D.C.

Chaffetz soon became known as one of the few members of Congress who gives reporters his personal cell phone number, making it easy to reach him without going through a press secretary. In a world where cable TV news shows constantly need interviews, he became known as someone always willing to appear and say something pithy.

He said his success comes from "being so accessible. It's so rare in Washington, D.C., I'm still amazed at how insulated most members make themselves. They're so scared of going on television and having a YouTube moment."

He says the national media "has been fascinated by someone who is so accessible — no preconceived negotiations for an interview. I'm one of a handful who do that."

Chaffetz notes that TV producers call "and say, 'We've got this spot, can you be on?' I'll say yes, then ask what the topic is. They love that." He says they tell him, "You're so easy to work with, we can count on you, you show up on time. That has worked really well."

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