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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.

Shurtleff is unapologetic about his "RINO" — Republican In Name Only — stands on some social issues. His conscience wouldn't let him toe the party line on immigration or nondiscrimination laws. He couldn't relate to the negative stereotypes spewed by hardliners.

"That's the problem with Republicans and the party and party dogma that is harmful to our nation, frankly," he said. "I'm a party guy, but not ahead of what's good for America."

Quoting Atticus Finch from "To Kill a Mockingbird," he says, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Another well-known conservative activist, Utah Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka, also had run-ins with Shurtleff. While they agreed on Second Amendment rights, they tangled over proposed laws prohibiting violent and sexually explicit video game sales to children. Ruzicka saw the measure as pro-family; Shurtleff viewed it as a free speech matter.

"He wasn't considered on a lot of issues as the most conservative person in the world," Ruzicka said.

Still, she said, Shurtleff always accepted and returned her phone calls. She said they formed an "unusual friendship" where they can disagree but remain friends.

Ruzicka can relate to Shurtleff in a personal way as well. She had a son who died of a drug overdose. Shurtleff is a father of five children, including three adopted from drug-addicted mothers. One of them, Danielle, suffers from depression and tried to kill herself.

"When you pray for somebody, you can overlook a lot of things," Ruzicka said.

It was that sentiment that Shurtleff said helped him through a series of life-threatening health issues.

Catholic friends lit candles for him at Mass. A Jewish friend wrote his name on the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Navajo Indians performed a blessing for him. Mormons put his name on temple prayer rolls.

In 2007, he mangled is left leg in a motorcycle crash while practicing for a charity ride for fallen police officers. After months of broken bones not healing, doctors placed his leg in metal halos with wires and pins being used to affix the bones to the rings. Had that failed, amputation was the next option.

During what turned out to be an extremely painful 18-month recovery, the attorney general became dependent on painkillers. He returned home from work one night to find his wife, M'Liss, had flushed his OxyContin and oxycodone. He protested that he was tapering, but she insisted he go cold turkey.

Shurtleff went through withdrawals as a result.

"I can totally empathize with a drug addict and how hard it is to rehab," he said, indicating relief is always just a pill away.

"You know, like that," he said snapping his fingers, "I can feel on top of the world. How do they do it? How? There's nothing harder than kicking a drug addiction. Man, it just really, really taught me something."

Living with pain

Shurtleff, who has undergone 25 orthopedic surgeries of one kind or another, says not a day goes by that his leg doesn't hurt.

But the pain doesn't slow him down much. More than once, a groggy Shurtleff ran the office from a hospital bed, sometimes sending goofy emails to colleagues. Torgensen said Shurtleff was more engaged than some past attorneys general who were healthy.

While the Harley-Davidson wreck nearly cost Shurtleff his leg, stage 3 colon cancer in 2010 almost took his life. Shurtleff said he thought he was invulnerable until his oncologist told him he had a 50/50 chance of being dead in five years.

Shurtleff summed up his feelings at the gloomy news with lines from the T.S. Eliot poem "The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

"And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, and in short, I was afraid."

As chemotherapy ravaged his body, an emotional cancer strained his marriage of 32 years in January.

"It's tough on relationships, family. We're working on that," he said. 

M'Liss Shurtleff said there have been ups and downs, but she and her husband are in a better place now than they have been in years. Being the attorney general 24/7 and being away from home a lot made it difficult for her and the children, who were split on the spotlight their father's job cast on the family, she said.

"It's hard to see someone pull away, but he's realized what's important," she said. "Politics is a slippery slope. Sometimes you can just get too wrapped up in power."

Shurtleff, a Mormon, also struggled with his faith during his adversity.

"I have to admit, there were times when I was just like, 'Really? God, why me? Excuse me. I've dedicated my life to serving people and I have to go through this?'" said Shurtleff, who was deemed cancer free in June 2011.

Shurtleff said he has resolved any questions he might have had.

"I'm absolutely dedicated to the church. I'm very grateful for the (Christmas) season and my Savior and for my family and wife who's amazingly supportive," he said.

A public life

Shurtleff concedes he has some regrets about letting the public in "to the extent I've lost anonymity and the ability to have a private life in a lot of respects."

The attorney general's openness — personally and professionally — has drawn sharp criticism and labeled him as a grandstander. Critics accused him of taking political contributions from businessmen they said he should be investigating. His pursuit of an antitrust lawsuit against college football's Bowl Championship Series was viewed as a publicity stunt.

Murphy says those characterizations are "hurtful" because Shurtleff didn't make decisions to benefit himself.

Immigration brought out some of the most divisiveness.

Ron Mortensen, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Shurtleff did everything he could to protect lawbreakers and nothing to protect child victims of identity theft.

"He probably owes a refund on his salary," Mortensen said.

Children, though, have been a focus of Shurtleff's administration. His office for years has sent letters to families whose Social Security numbers were stolen and walked them through how to clean up the problem. Also, more than 600 Internet predators and child pornographers were jailed in his tenure.

Latino activist and Democrat Tony Yapias called Shurtleff a voice of reason and compassion.

"We need voices like Mark Shurtleff's out there. I recognize that not all Republicans are extreme and ultraconservative. I think there are a lot more Mark Shurtleffs in this world, but it's just that no one listened to them until now," Yapias said.

A run at another political office isn't in Shurtleff's plans, though he admits to musing about being in the U.S. Senate right now. But then he said he thinks of Danielle, his daughter whose worsening depression and suicidal thoughts prompted him to drop out of the race in 2009. 

Shurtleff might be considered a renaissance man of sorts.

He wrote a historical novel titled "Am I Not a Man: The Dred Scott Story" about the black slave whose landmark legal fight for freedom moved the country closer to civil war. Last year out of the blue, he applied for but didn't get the recently open University of Utah president's job. He's thinking about writing a book on polygamy.

In January, Shurtleff will take a job with the international law firm Troutman Sanders representing clients before regulatory agencies. He'll spend time at its Washington, D.C., office but intends to maintain his Sandy home.

Shurtleff said he hasn't thought a lot about his legacy. He believes his pursuit of Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs has ended child bride marriages in Utah. He initiated in Utah the now national Amber Alert system. He curbed the state's meth lab proliferation.

Asked to take a shot at summing up his career, Shurtleff said, "He was a guy who did the right thing regardless of the controversy or political posturing and tried to serve the best he could."

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E-mail: romboy@desnews.com, Twitter: dennisromboy

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