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Dan Liljenquist rising from ashes of plane crash

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 12:04 p.m. MDT

Dan Liljenquist, a 36-year-old freshman state senator from Davis County, is considered by some as a rising star in Utah politics.    (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Dan Liljenquist, a 36-year-old freshman state senator from Davis County, is considered by some as a rising star in Utah politics. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

BOUNTIFUL — "When your engine goes out at 10,000 feet, the thing that I've thought about most is that people think there's screaming. But there was literally nothing — it was dead silent. The only sound was the (rushing air on) the window and the wings, the stuff you never hear."

Dan Liljenquist was one of 14 people aboard a single-engine Cessna flying over Guatemala on Aug. 24, 2008, when its engine died and the plane descended toward jungle.

The words steadily emerge from Liljenquist's mouth with healthy amounts of vocal intonation, but the vacant look in his eyes bespeaks an emotional vulnerability still unhealed.

"The first thing that went through my mind was, 'I'm going to die.' And the next thing was, 'It's OK.' It felt like it was OK to die."

Dan Liljenquist, a 36-year-old freshman state senator from Davis County, is considered by some as a rising star in Utah politics.  (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Dan Liljenquist, a 36-year-old freshman state senator from Davis County, is considered by some as a rising star in Utah politics. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

The plane crashed; Liljenquist precariously danced with death and destiny.

Ears ringing. Smell of burnt plastic and gasoline. Blinking eyes into focus. Self-realization of still being alive. Struggling to disembark. Realizing both legs are badly broken, both feet dislocated. Calling for help. One leg catches fire. Pulled from wreckage by two men. Plane explodes. Smell of burning flesh.

Liljenquist survived, but 11 of his fellow passengers didn't.

Now 36 years old and a first-term state senator from Bountiful, Liljenquist limps noticeably. He is never pain-free, will never run or jog again, and has trouble sleeping since the crash. But he lives.

Compelled by an acute and ineffable sense of urgency that his brush with death instilled in him, Dan Liljenquist is a crusading legislator who just might be the fastest-rising star in Utah politics.

Dan Liljenquist, a 36-year-old freshman state senator from Davis County, is considered by some as a rising star in Utah politics.  (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Dan Liljenquist, a 36-year-old freshman state senator from Davis County, is considered by some as a rising star in Utah politics. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Liljenquist was born in Nashville, Tenn., where his father taught at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. The family moved to Idaho Falls when he was 5, and Liljenquist grew up as one of the middle children in a brood of 15 kids (including six adoptees).

"I think part of the best training I have for politics was being seventh of 15 kids," he said. "I never got to dictate anything — anything. It was always negotiation. It was always working in a group of people and trying to get people to understand each individual person's needs and have them kind of meet those needs."

Liljenquist attended BYU on a one-year academic scholarship that was renewable only if he earned a 3.9 GPA. He wanted to pay for his own schooling, and in that respect the scholarship's onerous terms of renewal actually proved to be a boon by propelling him to maintain his GPA above 3.9 throughout all four years of college.

He spliced two years of a Spanish-speaking LDS mission to Texas into his undergraduate studies. Although his father and a couple of brothers are doctors, Liljenquist eschewed medicine for the study of law. During the months between earning an economics degree from BYU in 1998 and enrolling at the prestigious University of Chicago Law School, he married Centerville native Brooke Davies.

Instead of practicing law following graduation from Chicago in 2001, Liljenquist went to work for Mitt Romney's former employer Bain & Company, an internationally renowned global management firm, as a strategy consultant specializing in turning around struggling companies. While with Bain, Liljenquist consulted for distressed multi-million dollar companies in the United States and abroad, seeking out inefficiencies and identifying cost-saving measures.

He moved back to Utah in 2003, working first as director of operational strategy for a division of Affiliated Computer Services, a Fortune 500 company with offices in Sandy. In 2006 Liljenquist joined FOCUS Services, a Roy-based call center where he is president and chief operating officer.

For several years Liljenquist toyed with the idea of running for office, but an irresolvable personal issue kept him out of politics.

"The biggest hurdle I had with getting involved (politically) was I didn't think anybody could pronounce my last name," he said. "The J has a Y sound, and it throws people off. I just had this mental block in my mind, that (getting elected) will never happen in Utah."

He ultimately overcame his surname sensitivity in 2008 and filed to run for the 23rd District senate seat that the late Dan Eastman was vacating. In the Republican primary on June 25, Liljenquist received 64 percent of the vote to defeat Ronald Mortensen. After winning the primary, a victory for Liljenquist in the subsequent November general election seemed all but assured given the Republican loyalties of his electorate.

But before making it to Election Day, Liljenquist first trekked to Guatemala in mid-August for a service project organized by Utah-based CHOICE Humanitarian. Several of his FOCUS employees joined him on the humanitarian trip to build new classrooms in rural Guatemalan locales.

After the plane crash, reality crystallized for Liljenquist that his physical injuries were quite extensive — one ankle, for example, was broken in 16 places — but they would not be life threatening.

While his body consistently healed, Liljenquist's psyche proved to be a much more complicated matter.

"I think guilt is a natural part of (my survival)," he said. "I was president of the company and I had four of my employees with me and I'm the one who came home. … Having such a close brush with death and having lost some close friends, life seems like a very short, very fragile journey."

Liljenquist decisively won the general election from his hospital bed.

The beginning of Liljenquist's legislative career had all the makings of a very interesting case study: take a relatively young man who is bright, well educated, impeccably trained, financially comfortable and able to set his own work schedule; imbue him with palpable immediacy and urgency; and turn him loose in a citizen legislature.

Liljenquist immediately found himself drawn to fiscal policy like a moth to light.

"I'm laser-focused on the fiscal issues," he explains. "That's my background. My training's in that. I'm comfortable doing that, having worked at Bain and worked at ACS. That's the stuff I love.

"What I've tried to stake out is that I will jump in on the hard issues, I will figure it out, I will bring people along, and then I will try to fix our long-term structural problems, our fiscal problems primarily."

Liljenquist's peers quickly came to value his enthusiasm and expertise for the complex fiscal issues.

"Dan's economic and financial acumen are unparalleled in Utah politics," said Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George. "Given the state of the economy and pending financial crises in state and federal government, his rise in politics is both timely and?fortunate for?Utah citizens."

The first significant issue that piqued Liljenquist's inner economist was pension reform — essentially, the retirement system for state employees needed to be revamped or else it risked bankrupting Utah. Liljenquist spent 10 months poring over data, building bipartisan consensus and ultimately passing a bill that other states are now attempting to emulate.

Mission accomplished.

"Dan Liljenquist is in the top 1 percent of our elected officials in Utah," said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. "He took on an incredibly thorny issue with the state pension plan. It's one of those problems where it's usually too difficult for a state part-time legislator to ever dare invest the time and effort because the chance of solving it seems too low.

"But nonetheless, I think he did an amazing job with it. I think all Utahns owe Dan a great debt of gratitude for taking on (pension reform)."

Randy Shumway, president of Cicero Group, echoes Jowers' assessment.

"Last year," Shumway said, "Dan tackled the state pension plan that could've been devastating to the state collectively — to the participants in the state pension plan, to all taxpayers. … He is a superb state senator. He's willing to take on the challenging topics most critical to our state. And he does it in a very data-oriented, methodical and strategic manner such that he's able to remove much of the initial emotions from the debate and drive toward thoughtful and appropriate solutions."

Liljenquist recently came to loggerheads with Senate president Michael Waddoups over committee assignments for the 2011 legislative session. Liljenquist's elegantly simple solution: run against Waddoups for the Senate presidency.

"I think that was a little unusual," said Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, the minority leader of the Utah State Senate. "With him being new to the body and not having leadership experience, it did surprise me that he wanted to take the (president's) chair."

Ultimately Liljenquist lost to Waddoups by a single vote. GOP insiders and media outlets alike have speculated that Waddoups punished Liljenquist for stepping out of line by stripping him of the vice chairmanship of the Executive Appropriations Committee. Waddoups, however, contends that Liljenquist's 2011 committee assignments — including new appointments as the chairman of the Ethics Committee and a member of the influential Rules Committee — are just as good if not better than before.

"I think if you look at where he's at, he got some very choice appointments and is probably on more committees than he was before," Waddoups said. "We put him in places where we need his expertise and his capabilities."

Given ample opportunity to criticize Liljenquist's potentially impetuous challenge, Waddoups instead chose to heap praise on the freshman senator from Davis County.

"With his unlimited energy, he's been compared to the Energizer Bunny," Waddoups said. "He just goes and goes and goes. He's very intelligent. He's well trained in economic theory and how to profitably turn a struggling organization around. So he's got some real skills."

The big issue presently in Liljenquist's crosshairs for the upcoming legislative session is Medicaid reform. Medicaid is an entitlement program, meaning that all eligible applicants must be accepted and there is no cap on the number of participants. It currently accounts for 18 percent of state expenditures, a figure projected to reach 36 percent within a decade. Without serious reform, Medicaid will siphon hundreds of millions of dollars from the state's education spending.

"Now Dan is jumping from that (pension) pan into the fire of Medicaid," Jowers said. "The Medicaid financial hole, now with the pension-plan thing solved, is perhaps our state's biggest financial problem. It restrains all of our other funding choices. I think we all wish him Godspeed in having similar success there."

Liljenquist's political future is a veritable plethora of possibility. In 2012 he could seek reelection, vie for the governor's mansion or maybe even run for the U.S. Senate. For a statewide election his biggest obstacle would ostensibly be his name recognition, something Jowers roughly estimates at 3 percent or less.

"For those who want to tear Dan down a little bit for ambition, in my mind at least so far his ambition has all been for the good of the state," Jowers said. "He has gone and tackled actual problems, and if that leads the state to believe because of what he's been able to do here that he might be able to go and solve some of our crippling issues on the national level, which no one is able to touch, then he probably deserves that position far more than someone who just strikes an ideological chord with a group of people and gets that position."

Two and a half years removed from the plane crash that irrevocably altered his life's course, Liljenquist's interests include things both old and new.

"A lot of the hobbies that I used to do, sports and other things, I'm kind of limited because of injuries from my plane crash," he said.

His family remains his focal point (Dan and Brooke had five young children at the time of the crash, and 8-month-old Eden makes it six kids for the Liljenquist clan). Writing in his journal — something he did every day during 2010 — is a pursuit now as before. While he still rabidly cheers for BYU's football team, he simply lost interest in most of the other sports entities he previously followed and out of the blue became a diehard fan of soccer and the English Premier League.

Any discussion of Dan Liljenquist's interests wouldn't be complete without examining how he views the role of politics in his life. Although he personally considers his political career to be something akin to a calling, he speaks openly about having witnessed elected office "pickling the brains" of well-intentioned politicians who lost their bearings and fell from grace. In fact, Liljenquist candidly wonders whether politics could someday be his road to perdition as well.

"I (fear) that the next time I die I'm not ready to go," he explains. "The great tragedy of my life, if this was a Greek tragedy, would be to have not died if I was ready to die and later I ruined myself. I worry about that. My wife worries about that. We worry about that. Because that would be a great tragedy, no matter what accomplishment you make in the world, if you lose sight and lose your way — and I see so many people in politics do that."

Undergirding every move Liljenquist makes in the political arena is the new companion he cannot shake — urgency.

"I wasn't elected to get reelected," he said. "I was elected to actually do stuff. … I have always known conceptually that I was going to die, but it became a reality to me. And because of that I feel like I've got nothing to lose.

"What I feel like I've got to lose is time — that's why I'm not interested in waiting around. So I try and take on the toughest things, and if you fail (then) you fail trying to do the important things, trying to do the great things, the things that if you succeed will change things forever."

e-mail: jaskar@desnews.com

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