One of the longest serving and most powerful state legislators, Senate Majority Leader Craig Peterson, is resigning.
Peterson, R-Orem, said Wednesday that he's sending a resignation letter to Gov. Mike Leavitt and will leave office in December.Peterson said he's leaving mainly because of business pressures. In May he left an engineering consulting firm and started his own consulting business.
But the 12-year veteran said he's also concerned about the rise of the party's right wing.
"It seems you are judged (on your conservativism) by some of these conservative groups on two or three narrow issues, while I believe that my constituents - Republicans, Democrats and independents alike - are concerned about hundreds of issues. I consider myself very conservative, but maybe not by the standards of some of these groups."
While he didn't mention it by name, the Utah Republican Assembly has been very active in Utah County politics this year, much to the dismay of some of the county's House and Senate incumbents.
Peterson leaves at the top of his political power. The majority leader is the second most powerful post in the Senate, behind the Senate president.
In the middle of his four-year term, Peterson had already announced that he wasn't seeking re-election as majority leader. Insiders expected him to be named Senate budget chairman after the November elections. Now that post will have to go to someone else.
Peterson said he's led a "charmed" political career in the Legislature. He was appointed to the House in 1986, and before that seat's re-election came up he was appointed to the Senate.
He didn't face an election until 1988. After eliminating his GOP opponent in the Utah County Convention, he was unopposed.
"When people ask me about my political success - especially in elections - I, only partly in jest, say they should be appointed as a Republican to a very conservative seat and have no opposition at re-election.
"But seriously, I hope that the reason I wasn't challenged more is because I've been a good legislator, attentive to my constituents' needs," said the 51-year-old lawmaker.
He said he reviewed the longevity of other legislators now serving. "And if my count is right, I'm the fourth longest serving person up here. There is a natural time to serve and leave."
Peterson actually almost lost his life because of his legislative service. After a legislative-related convention in Hawaii several years ago, Peterson and his wife vacationed with Senate President Lane Beattie and his wife. While surfing with Beattie, Peterson became separated from his Boogie board and couldn't make it to shore. He was pulled unconscious from the water by lifeguards and hospitalized for several days.
"I really thought I was going to die. I'd gone under three or four times and couldn't swim any more. Can you imagine dying because you were in the Legislature?" he joked recently.
Peterson said he is closing doors to running for office again. "I don't anticipate that." But he's keeping all of his business opportunities open. He has about five business clients now, some of whom are interested in state work.
Will he become a lobbyist?
"I haven't talked to anyone about that at all. I think it is inappropriate to even consider it" while in office and before the announcement of his resignation. "But I'm keeping all my options open, too."
Peterson said his greatest pleasure in office "is a bill and vote that no one remembers." A former police officer was dying of cancer, and Peterson sponsored a bill to give him his law enforcement retirement early.
"He died a month after getting that retirement. It was my best work."
His worst time was the protracted disharmony over an illegal Senate caucus where senators discussed banning gay and lesbian high school student clubs.
While Peterson, as majority leader, oversees GOP caucuses, "I wasn't in charge that day. When they started talking about that I turned to the senator next to me and said: `What the heck is going on?' In hindsight, I should have been proactive, known what they wanted to talk about and stopped it."
He also regrets not pushing harder for I-15 reconstruction to start sooner. "I could have gotten it started a year earlier. But because of my job (working for a consulting engineering firm that had state transportation contracts) I worried about conflicts of interest - people saying I was pushing the work for my employer - and so didn't. I should have."
Peterson actually won't leave office until after the November election, even though he isn't up for election this year. That's because of apparent gaps in state election law.
If he resigned before the Nov. 3 election, state law says his seat must be up for election in the "next general election." That would be this November. Somehow political parties would have to get names on the ballot for his Orem District 14 seat. That process is a bit unclear.
And it would be messy, maybe impossible, for Rep. John Valentine, R-Orem, to get on that Senate ballot. Valentine reportedly has his eye on Peterson's seat. If Valentine wasn't picked by the county Republican Party and Leavitt to fill Peterson's seat immediately, he may not be able to get on the Nov. 3 ballot for Senate District 14.
Under state law the only way to get off the ballot - Valentine seeks re-election to his House seat this year - is to become medically unfit or move out of the district. If Valentine tried either of those options, he may not be able to get on the Senate ballot after getting off his House seat ballot.
"I think we need to change election law," Peterson said. "My situation shows that."