Mark Shurtleff's tenure marked by personal and professional challenges

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 25 2012 1:40 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Mark Shurtleff hasn't yet composed the final tweet of his unconventional tenure as Utah attorney general.

A prolific Twitter user, the three-term Republican has some thoughts rolling around in his head but has yet to type his 140-character denouement.

"You'll have to give me a little more time on that," said Shurtleff, who leaves office Jan. 7. "I'm going to wait and try to think of the right things to say."

Some of his tweets over the years were hasty, like the time he inadvertently announced his bid for U.S. Senate. Then there was what seemed to him an innocuous news update on condemned killer Ronnie Lee Gardner that drew worldwide scorn.

"I just gave the go ahead to corrections director to proceed with Gardner's execution. May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims," he posted.

Shurtleff, 55, has much to reflect on as he crafts his last tweet after 12 years in office, during which he received national acclaim.

Political and personal challenges have marked his time as the state's chief law enforcer. Staking out an unpopular position in the polarizing illegal immigration debate, aggressively delving into the secretive world of polygamy and life-threatening health issues tested not only his political mettle but his willpower, his marriage and his faith.

"He has made himself more vulnerable than any other politician I've ever met," said Paul Murphy, a former TV news reporter who has worked as Shurtleff's public spokesman since a month into his first term.

"He surprised me from the beginning," Murphy said. "I kind of expected him to be just another politician."

At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Shurtleff's imposing stature and self-assurance doesn't reveal any signs of vulnerability. His most recent knee surgery actually left him a little taller. His left leg is now 1½ inches longer than his right.

"Now I can say I really do lean to the right," he said.

Paul Mero, president of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank, had a hard time figuring out Shurtleff's politics when he first encountered him a decade ago.

Mero saw him as warm to gay rights and soft on a Utah constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. He wondered about Shurtleff's moral compass.

"I didn't have a high impression of him in my initial interactions," Mero said. "I couldn't quite understand his politics. Mark said he was conservative. That is one of the things I take seriously. I was trying to understand his conservatism."

The two oddly came together, though, on illegal immigration, particularly the Utah Compact that Shurtleff helped foster. The compact — endorsed by religious, business and political leaders — outlines compassionate principles to guide the acrimonious immigration debate.

Mero, who doesn't consider himself a close friend with Shurtleff, said he came to see the attorney general's sense of humanity — a big man with a big heart.

"I think it genuinely hurts his heart when people suffer or aren't happy," he said. "I have come to admire Mark and better yet understand him and understand his heart."

A fighter

Chief deputy attorney general Kirk Torgensen, who hired Shurtleff as a lawyer in the office's civil rights division nearly 20 years ago, said Shurtleff never put his finger into the wind before making a decision. He said his boss fought for what he thought was right and didn't care if it seemed too big or too overwhelming.

"It didn't matter that the decision was going to result in political chatter or upset the party or anyone," Torgensen said.

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