Former Congressman Bill Orton, a political maverick who served three terms as a Democrat in one of Utah's most conservative districts, has died.
The 60-year-old died in an all-terrain vehicle accident Saturday afternoon at the Little Sahara Sand Dunes, the Juab County sheriff said.
"He was riding out on the sand and went off a very steep sand dune, and when he impacted the bottom, the front end of the four-wheeler flipped on top of him, injuring him," Sheriff Alden Orme told the Deseret News late Saturday. "He was alone at the time of the accident. Another ATV rider passed by a short time later and found him."
Ambulance crews and a medical helicopter were dispatched to the scene but arrived too late.
"He succumbed to his injuries," Orme said.
Orton was wearing a helmet, the sheriff said.
Orton's wife, Jacquelyn, made a brief statement about her husband's passing on her Facebook profile.
"I must go meet my children, who were with their father, in Provo as quickly as possible. Please excuse the crassness of this announcement," she wrote. "Please keep us in your prayers."
Political colleagues and opponents were shocked by Orton's sudden passing. Karen Hale, the former state senator who was Orton's running mate during the 2000 governor's race, cried at hearing the news.
"It's just awful," she said. "His boys ... that's just what is breaking my heart."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland said his prayers were with Orton's wife and sons, Will and Wes.
"It's a big loss for Utah," he said. "These things are surreal to me. Life ... I don't know what to say."
Orton served the 3rd District from 1991 to 1997. He was an anomaly as a Democratic congressman representing one of the nation's most conservative districts.
Orton described himself as someone who hated politics, hated campaigning and hated fundraising. He said partisanship made politicians less effective. His first election to Congress surprised almost everyone but him, including most voters. He had trailed in polls significantly during the entire campaign as a Democrat in possibly the most Republican district in the nation.
On the weekend before the election, his Republican opponent ran a newspaper ad showing himself and his large family next to a mug shot of Orton, who was single, which said, "Bill Orton and his family." The ad — intending to show the GOP opponent was more family friendly? — backfired. Voters viewing it as an insult to single people voted in droves for Orton, making his win perhaps the biggest upset ever in Utah political history.
Orton married a bit later in life. His met his wife, who was a lobbyist, while he was working in Congress. When his oldest son was born, he proudly took the baby with him to committee meetings and other congressional work.
When it came to party loyalty, it was more like party disloyalty for Orton. A 1994 Congressional Quarterly study showed Orton voted against then-President Bill Clinton's stands so often that 27 House Republicans were more loyal to Clinton than he was. He voted with a majority of his party only 58 percent of the time — ninth lowest among House Democrats. Some Democrats derisively joked that meant Utah had 4 1/2 Republicans in its delegation — instead of four Republicans and a Democrat.
After three terms, Orton was defeated in 1996 in large part because Utahns were upset that President Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, largely without informing Orton or the Utah delegation until the last moment — and made him, as a Democrat, pay for it. Orton, however, won some concessions about that monument from Clinton at the last moment. For example, at his urging, it became the first national monument to be operated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (which local residents had a better relationship with than the National Park Service), and was intended to continue to allow hunting.
He lost his congressional seat to Republican Chris Cannon. Their race was considered one of the hottest in the nation at the time.
Cannon was stunned by word of his former rival's passing.
"I knew Bill from the time we went to law school together in 1977 and always had the greatest admiration for him. We had differences politically, but I think we always had respect for each other, and in recent years we had a very amicable relationship," Cannon said. "Utah is much poorer for losing Bill Orton's thoughtful and insightful approach to public issues."
After leaving Congress, Orton, a Brigham Young University graduate, returned to the private sector as a tax attorney and a consultant, working out of a home office in Ogden. In a 2000 Deseret News profile on Orton, family and friends described him as "the studious type" as a youngster growing up in North Ogden, the third of Donald and Carroll Orton's five children. He devoted himself to his schoolbooks rather than athletics or socializing.
He returned to public life in 2000, challenging Mike Leavitt for governor. He made the race a referendum on education, holding Leavitt's feet to the fire on the issue.
Holland said in recent years, the party tried to persuade Orton to return to politics to run for either Congress or state treasurer. He resisted, in part because of lingering back problems he suffered in 1996 when he was randomly attacked at the Capitol by a man who later pleaded guilty to assault on a congressman.
"He's been getting better and enjoying his family, finally getting back pain relief," Holland said. "A couple of years ago he wouldn't be able to ride his ATV."
Orton remained active in state party politics, serving as a Democratic National Committeeman and casting a superdelegate vote for the party's presidential nominee in 2008, Barack Obama. He attended the inauguration in January, Holland said.
Funeral arrangements for Orton have yet to be announced.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Lee Davidson. E-MAIL: [email protected]