SALT LAKE CITY — He’s certainly no stranger to the public eye in his own right. This past December, he retired from the Salt Lake City Council, where he served four terms for 16 consecutive years. His current job — regional development director for Salt Lake County — has also received plenty of attention.
But still, Carlton Christensen routinely gets mistaken for his big brother Clayton.
“It’s not uncommon at all for someone who’s not close to me to turn around and call me Clayton,” Carlton said when he sat down for this interview. “I thought you were probably wanting to do an article on him.”
Comes with the territory when your brother is not only the famous Harvard professor who wrote the best-selling business book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and coined the phrase “disruptive innovation,” but also happens to have a name that sounds very much like your own.
“All the time during high school, teachers would call me Clayton,” said Carlton, who is 14 years younger than Clayton. “I was only half-joking when I said I think my mom went to name me Clayton until she realized she’d already given that name out.”
Half-joking because she was running out of names. Carlton, 48, is the last in the line of eight children born to Robert and Verda Mae Christensen. First came Elliott, followed by Clayton, Milton (who died at age 11), Maribeth, Spencer, Bradley, Nancy Ruth and, finally, Carlton.
Robert and Verda Mae raised this prodigious group on the west side of Salt Lake City in Rose Park, in a house where Carlton resides to this day.
Of all the wisdom the parents imparted to their offspring, getting an education was right there at the top of the list. Every one of the kids owns a college diploma and many of them more than one. Carlton has a bachelor's degree from the University of Utah. Among the siblings they have 15 degrees, including three MBAs, two Ph.D.s and one Rhodes scholarship.
(They’re also all tall. Robert was 6-foot-8 and Verda Mae almost 6 feet. The shortest Christensen is Nancy at 5-foot-8. Spencer is the tallest at 7 feet, then Carlton at 6-foot-10, Clayton at 6-foot-8, Elliott at 6-foot-6, Brad at 6-foot-3 and Maribeth at 6-foot-2).
For careers, half went into education and half into business.
The lone politician is Carlton.
He was 31 when he first ran for the Salt Lake City Council, in 1997. He retired undefeated after being re-elected three straight times.
Last summer, upon learning of his decision to leave city politics at the end of the year, Ben McAdams, the newly elected Salt Lake County mayor and a Democrat, created the position of development director and reached out to Christensen, a Republican, to fill the chair.
He might be a Republican, but a moderate one, with a reputation as a bridge-builder and peacemaker and legions of friends throughout the county and the state Legislature.
The Deseret News sat down for a question-and-answer session with Carlton, not Clayton, Christensen.
Deseret News: Thank you for your time and this opportunity. Your position as development director with the county didn’t exist before you came on board; what does the job entail?
Carlton Christensen: It brings together areas of county government not previously focused under one roof. This includes emergency services (disaster response), economic development, community resources and development (affordable housing programs and homeless services and special loan funds), the Criminal Justice Advisory Council, the Grants Office, and long range planning and transportation.
DN: What do you hope to accomplish?
CC: My desire is to have Salt Lake County be a convener of choice for these regional discussions and provide resources to break down inter-jurisdictional barriers to solutions. The 911 computer-aided dispatch is an example.
DN: What did you learn about governance during your 16 years on the City Council that will impact what you do in your position with the county?
CC: I’ve learned that finding solutions is about honest relationships of trust and respect. Understanding the other viewpoint helps you see solutions that include compromises so both sides feel successful. My years of public service have provided years of friendship, and hopefully respect, that can be effective in finding the solutions we need.
DN: Any plans for disruptive innovation?
CC: Absolutely there is a need for disruptive innovation in government. Government is challenged in that it doesn’t have a competitor, and thus doesn’t have the same incentive as private businesses to look for innovation. Government too often tries to solve problems with a complicated and expensive model rather than a simpler and cheaper solution for an initial effort and have it develop from there.
DN: Fill in the blank: this county needs ____________.
CC: To decide how we transition from where the county was historically governed to where it needs to go. Our population keeps growing and the lines are becoming so blurred that cities intertwine with each other from block to block. One of my first assignments from the mayor was to read the book, “Metropolitan Revolution.” I’m not leading the transition into a metropolitan government, that’s clearly the mayor’s role, but my job is to support him and help execute it.
DN: You’ve been involved in public service since you were 31. What sparked your early entrance into politics?
CC: I wanted to make a difference in my community and I felt like it was time for me to step up if I was going to try. I’m not systematically driven by politics, but by the desire to do something in government that will meet the needs of the people I live around.
DN: You’ve never left the Rose Park neighborhood where you were raised. What keeps you moored?
CC: I love Rose Park because it has a hometown feel. There are a lot of multigeneration families there, but you also have the urban environment and diversity and proximity of the city, and it’s just kind of a fun combination. And I do think it’s a place where we can make a difference. We feel like that’s important for us and for our kids.
DN: School was clearly a big deal in the family you grew up in. Fifteen college degrees among you and your six siblings. Where does this strong education emphasis come from?
CC: The beauty of our parents raising us wasn’t so much drilling study into us but they taught this notion of learning to love and discover and think for yourself — and take care of yourself. After my dad died, my mom went back to school and got her master’s degree and got recertified as a teacher so she’d have a career the rest of her life.
DN: What’s the best piece of advice you received from your parents? And what do you think is the best piece of advice you’ve given to your two daughters?
CC: In different verbiage, both of my parents said don’t worry about the work, just get it done. That was very typical of them. Don’t worry about whose responsibility it is, if the need is there just go and do it. I see that in my siblings as well. We’re kind of modified type A’s, and if something needs to be done, we step in and try to organize it and carry it forward. What I’ve always told my daughters is to be sure whoever your interact with, treat them fairly.
DN: So how is it to have an internationally famous brother?
CC: He’s very humble and sincere about it. He’ll have a meeting in the prime minister’s office in Great Britain that morning and you’ll talk to him and he’ll never say a word about it, so it’s not like you feel this bragging thing. I have to say that it has clearly opened doors for me — and, yeah, it’s probably given me a little bit more credibility than I might deserve.