SALT LAKE CITY — For Sen. Pat Jones, this year's recipient of the state Democratic Party's Eleanor Roosevelt Award, the honor comes as she's preparing for a lot of upheaval in her life.
Over the coming months, the Holladay Democrat, 63, will complete her final term in the Utah Legislature and end her career as a market researcher and focus group moderator at the firm she founded in 1980 with her husband, pollster Dan Jones.
But don't expect Jones to be coasting into retirement anytime soon.
She's already setting herself up for a tough political fight in the legislative session that begins in January by sponsoring a bill that would raise some $400 million for schools by eliminating the state income tax deduction for children.
And Jones said she'll be looking for something new to do in her professional life next year, when the contract ends that she and her husband have with the company that purchased Dan Jones & Associates.
"I enjoy people. I enjoy making policy. I like to find out what the problems are and work with other people to find solutions," she said during a recent interview squeezed between meetings with educators and clients.
Although Jones decided not to seek re-election in 2014 after serving eight years in the state Senate and six years in the state House, she said she intends to stay involved in the east-side community where she grew up.
She and her husband set aside plans to build a new home in St. George and live there year-round, Jones said, when they realized they weren't ready to leave behind her 91-year mother, seven children and 15 grandchildren.
Currently the Senate minority assistant whip, Jones' role as a Democratic leader in the GOP-controlled Legislature was not something she expected when she first became politically active as a Republican delegate in the 1980s.
"I didn't feel like I belonged," Jones said of leaving the Republican Party.
Now she describes herself as more moderate than some GOP lawmakers despite holding numerous Democratic leadership positions, including as the first-ever female minority leader in the Senate.
Jones said she has "great respect and friendship" for the Republicans she's worked with in the Legislature over the years.
"I look at them as experts," she said, on how the legislative process works, as well as on what they do professionally.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Jones has earned the respect of the majority party, despite disagreements over the years.
"She always has a good approach in the way she goes about her issues," Niederhauser said. "That's widely felt in the Senate. When she gets up and speaks against a bill from a Republican, it's always in good taste."
When Jones entered politics, she stepped away from the firm's political polling, a small part of the business. Her husband, long considered the state's top political pollster with clients including the Deseret News, stayed out of her political races.
Her work, which has taken her around the country to conduct focus groups on everything from ice cream to reaching younger buyers, has helped her understand what her constituents want, Jones said.
"When I take a stand in the Legislature, I usually feel fairly confident I'm representing the majority," she said, noting her colleagues from both sides of the aisle often quiz her about the firm's political polls.
While Jones said she's a strong advocate for getting more women involved in politics, she personally has not felt she faced discrimination because of her gender. She said that's "because I do come to the table, whether they like it or not."
Her work life is another story. Back when she and her husband started their firm, Jones put together the presentations for new clients, but they always turned to him with their questions and praised him for her work.
That led to her shifting her workload over time to leading focus groups and analyzing the data collected, something her degree in communications from the University of Utah has helped with, Jones said.
Former Utah Attorney General Jan Graham, the last Democrat elected statewide, said as a client she was "so impressed with Pat's insights about the human side of politics," she urged Jones to become a candidate for the Legislature.
Jones, Graham said, "really wanted to find out what people really cared about, and her approach was always unfailingly positive and warm, not cynical and dark, which can become the default place of politics."11 comments on this story
A former recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Award herself, Graham labeled Jones a political star who exhibits "kindness, decency and a genuine appreciation of people of all political stripes."
Jones said she wants to be remembered in the Legislature for her ability to work with just about everyone.
"It bothers me when people say you can't get anything done as a Democrat. It's blatantly false," Jones said. "I hope that would be said of me as I leave, that I get along. I know how to deal with most people."