Utah's new, largely unknown representative

Published: Sunday, Nov. 11 2012 12:03 a.m. MST

Chris Stewart chats with the media at his campaign headquarters in Centerville on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. Stewart will be Utah's newest congressman, serving the 2nd District, with constituents from Davis to Washington counties.

Tom Smart, Tom Smart, Deseret News

CENTERVILLE — On the day after the election, Rep.-elect Chris Stewart, R-Utah, sat in an office at his campaign headquarters making phone calls to supporters.

The walls were bare, the carpets vacuumed and, except for a couple of scattered campaign signs and boxes of supplies stacked on the front desk, all traces of his U.S. congressional campaign had been removed.

"It's kind of like the last day of school," Stewart said. "Everyone seems to have gone home. They signed the yearbook and left."

Stewart's comfortable 62 percent victory over Democrat Jay Seegmiller on Tuesday night was met with little fanfare. Voter attention was instead focused on the presidential election and Democrat Jim Matheson's grueling horse race in the new 4th District against Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love.

It matched the lack of attention given to the race as a whole, which except for a controversy at the state's Republican convention was a quiet contest between largely unknown candidates fighting for an open congressional seat in a district of which many voters likely didn't realize they were a part.

"We saw that all the time," Stewart said. "People had no idea what district they were in."

But Stewart's win was historic. After teetering on the edge for more than a decade, Utah was granted a fourth congressional seat for the 2012 election. Then, with Matheson's successful jump to a new political home in the 4th District, the open election to fill Utah's fourth seat fell, at least ceremonially, to the contest between Stewart and Seegmiller.

When Stewart first entered the race, it was understood that he would be facing Matheson in District 2. National and local attention followed Matheson to the 4th District, which Stewart said was both bad and good for his campaign.

"It made it hard for us to raise money. It made it harder for us to get guys from the media to come out and spend a few minutes with us," he said. "But on the other hand, it was a little more clear path not to run against the most well-known, well-funded Democrat in the state."

That clear path also means that many Utahns, even some he will now represent, likely don't know who Chris Stewart is.

District 2 covers the bulk of the state's western edge, pulling all or part of 14 counties from St. George to downtown Salt Lake City.

A commitment to representing central and southern Utah was a key focus in his campaign, Stewart said, giving rise to his slogan of "Uniting Davis to Dixie" and leading the candidate to spend a large part of the race visiting rural parts of the state.

Stewart said he "grew up milking cows," first in the small town of Weston, Idaho, before moving to Cache Valley when he was 14.

"I grew up in a tiny, tiny town," he said. "When I go out and talk, whether it's about ranching or whether it's the price of hay, I don't have to fake my way through it."

Today, Stewart lives in Farmington. He is father to six children and grandfather to four, two of whom were born in the week before the election. He is a business owner and a New York Times best-selling author who served 14 years as a pilot in the Air Force, during which time he set the world record for fastest nonstop flight around the world.

"It was an operational mission," he said. "We didn't set out to set the world speed record."

In many ways, Stewart didn't set out to be a U.S. congressman either. He said he never planned on running for Congress, and his campaign was far from a calculated move in a political career. His military and business backgrounds, however, made him believe he had something to offer.

Stewart describes himself as "mainstream conservative Republican." He said he didn't run as a tea party candidate, nor did he sign pledges that would limit what he would or would not support in office. He said he recognizes his limitations as a freshman congressman and will support House leadership in reaching across the aisle.

But he also believes Congress is made up of individuals like him who must put a serious effort toward moving beyond gridlock and establishing valuable policy.

"We want to go back with a clean slate, being able to do anything we can to make things better," Stewart said. "The biggest thing is let's fix (the deficit). Let's do something structural. Let's do something strategic that actually addresses these things rather than fiddle around the edges."

Stewart described election night as bittersweet, saying he was thrilled to see 2-to-1 returns in his race but discouraged in the national election. It's clear, he said, with the Republican wins in the House of Representatives and the Democratic wins in the Senate, that the American people voted for a balance of power in Washington.

Now, Stewart said, it's the responsibility of those elected to work together for the common good.

"I think all of us feel like gridlock has not been good for us," he said. "The challenge is to take that balance of power and not turn it into gridlock, but to actually be able to accomplish, legislatively, things that are good for the American people. … We just haven't done a good job of doing that."

Looking ahead, Stewart said he will spend a good portion of the next two months in Washington, preparing himself as much as possible to hit the ground running. He also said that while much of his staff had taken Nov. 7 off to be with their families, they would soon be back to work preparing for the transition.

"One thing we've got to do is figure out how to pick up 5,000 signs that are scattered across the state," he said.

Email: benwood@desnews.com

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