Although he's a Republican, there are times Salt Lake County Commissioner Mike Stewart sounds more like the classic liberal Democrat.

He talks about the needs of the downtrodden, the poor and the aged. He cites statistics on how one in five Americans will need temporary assistance at some point in their lives. He promotes social programs he helped start during his eight years on the commission.But Stewart, who is seeking a third four-year term, insists he is a political conservative - a conservative with a heart gained from years of struggle on a farm.

"I don't see government as a solution," he said. "I see it as the broker."

In Stewart's ideal world, social needs would be handled by a partnership of business and private non-profit groups, with government coordinating everything. But until such an ideal world exists, Stewart is prepared to fight for the county's Human Services Department, for which he is directly responsible.

He fought to give Salt Lake Valley Mental Health Inc., the county's privatized mental health service, the money its direcors asked for during the county's yearly budget session in December. He lost the battle, the other two commissioners reasoning that cuts should come from all county services.

Critics say Stewart is a hard-nosed bureaucrat who can disarm his enemies with a warm smile and an I-know-how-you-feel attitude.

There is no denying that Stewart has a unique sense of humor. Often during boring meetings, Stewart's face will light with a gleeful expression. Most county administrators know this means some kind of corny joke or pun is coming.

Other times he comes out with comments that leave people wondering whether they should laugh or look serious - such as when he compared new Salt Palace Director Sam Driggs to great leaders in history or when he told an official from the USU extension service that she serves more people than any other public facility, except toilets.

Stewart said his compassion for the downtrodden is deeply rooted in his childhood. He spent years struggling on a farm in Draper after his father died suddenly from a heart attack.

"I saw Mom fight her way back into the workplace after trying to raise the family," he said. "I've had some sense of what it's like to struggle."

Years later when he moved his family to Detroit to earn a doctorate in constitutional studies from Wayne State University, Stewart lived in a neighborhood heavily populated by blacks. When he arrived in 1968, his first taxi ride into the city was detoured because of riots.

"I greatly appreciated the concerns my neighborhood had," he said. "I saw that most of the issues people call race issues are really more just class issues."

Stewart said his years of struggling and watching others suffer has given him an urge to be self-sufficient. With a ruddy complexion and a stocky build, he is undoubtedly the healthiest and hardiest member of the commission, running several miles each week.

He joined other commissioners recently on a tour down an abandoned mine shaft in Cardiff Canyon. While the others puffed their way back uphill to the mine entrance, Stewart bounded to the top carrying a heavy manhole cover he had found. The cover still sits on a floor in his office.

Stewart's self-sufficiency also stems from his childhood. He has a need to master his surroundings and feels hostage to issues or skills he knows little about.

It was this urge that led him to become, at various times, a journeyman roofer, plumber and janitor. He learned to tune a car after suddenly realizing he was a hostage to auto mechanics. He began dabbling in real estate after realizing he never would be master of his financial security on a teacher's salary.

Stewart is an optimist, preferring to look at the productive and creative side of human nature than at things that are negative.

"People say this is the worst it's ever been," he said about society and life in general. "I don't believe that."