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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Pat Jones walks to her office at Dan Jones & Associates in Salt Lake City on April 23.

SALT LAKE CITY — When she was a student at Olympus High School, Pat Jones, the future legislator and businesswoman, pleaded with the principal to start a football team — for girls. His answer: Go ahead, but there will be no equipment and no coaching. Undeterred, she organized a game against rival Skyline that left one girl with a broken collarbone, and that was the end of that.

There were no sports for girls in those days beyond cheerleading, but Jones was never one for the sidelines. She wanted in the game, even one that was considered a men’s domain, and in the decades that followed that’s what she did, making her way in male-dominated worlds of politics and business.

She co-founded Dan Jones and Associates, the well-known public opinion and marketing research firm. OK, it bears her husband’s name, but the company was actually her idea, and they were equal partners even though she wasn’t always recognized as such by clients. She also has served 14 years in the state Senate and House, becoming the first woman minority leader ever in the Senate. Along the way, she and her husband raised seven children.

“I’ve had it all,” she says. “A great family. Business. Politics. I’ve had a great life. And the great thing is, I’m starting a new one. Is that awesome?”

This is a year of transition for Jones, whose youthful looks belie her age (65 later this year) despite her trademark silver hair. Not only is she not seeking re-election, she and her husband are leaving the company they started nearly 35 years ago. They sold Dan Jones and Associates in 2009 and will soon complete a five-year contract to remain as the faces of the company.

“I’ll have another career,” says Pat Jones. “This is what’s great about nowadays. You can be 65 and think, OK, what’s my next career going to be? I love it. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, probably what I’m doing now.”

Jones, who converted from Republican to Democrat years ago, is frequently asked if she will seek another political office. Her answer: “I don’t know. I don’t like to limit myself.”

Jones is one half of a power couple. She met Dan Jones in 1973 while working in the personnel office at Utah State University. He was a USU political science professor from Pocatello whose great oratory powers, showmanship and dedication — he missed one teaching day in 52 years — made him a favorite of students. She was in her mid-20s, 15 years younger than Dan, and they both were rebounding from divorces. They married in 1975 and moved to Salt Lake City a few years later, largely to make a fresh start in their new marriage.

Dan Jones took a teaching job at the University of Utah and was about to start a political consultancy business when Pat suggested another idea: “Let’s start our own business.” So began Dan Jones and Associates.

She had already gained considerable experience in the public opinion business while working for other researchers she had met through Dan, but she wasn’t taken seriously.

“We’d meet with the clients, and they’d always be looking at Dan,” she recalls. “It was, ‘What do you think, Dan?’ He’d say, ‘Ask her.’ I’ll say this, he always gave me credit. One thing that rankles me is this question: ‘Do you work for your husband?’ It used to happen a lot. It happens occasionally now. I’ve gotten my own identity.”

It helped that they developed different specialties. While her husband naturally gravitated to the political side of the business, she became expert in the qualitative and quantitative work in market research — focus groups, in-depth interviews and other tools that enable researchers to learn why people do or do not patronize certain businesses, and what messages work. There is hardly an industry that has not retained her services.

“She could run any research firm, both qualitative and quantitative,” says Dan Jones. “To do survey research, you’ve really got to know the subject you’re researching. She would read constantly about the product or the candidates we were studying and the areas we were polling, such as voting history and turnout. And she’s very good in focus groups in engaging people and getting them to express themselves.”

They began in 1980 with a two-room office and two employees — Mr. and Mrs. Jones. Eventually, they hired Dan’s former teacher’s assistant at USU, Dianne Meppen, and the company thrived without ever borrowing money. With three young kids and a growing business, Pat would sometimes stay up all night typing numbers and quantifying research. There were no computers in those days.

“I look back now and wonder how I did that,” says Jones, who also completed a journalism degree in 1993. “But I always knew it would work. Always.”

Maybe a political career was inevitable. Her profession required her to listen to and understand people and their behavior. She also conducted research for several political campaigns. In 1999, Jan Graham, Utah’s attorney general at the time, called to ask Jones to run for the Legislature. Jones resisted, but Graham called daily for about 10 days until Jones relented.

“I knocked on doors and worked hard ’cause I loved it,” she says. “I enjoyed the people. I never thought I’d win.”

She would run for the Legislature five times and win five times, serving six years in the House and eight in the Senate.

“The work on the Hill and my work (at Dan Jones) have been symbiotic,” she says. “When I’m voting, I’ve probably researched the issue, which makes me confident in my vote. My job (at Dan Jones) is understanding how people feel about issues. We measure it everyday. I have researched 95 percent of the issues we address up there. I don’t have to wonder what the public thinks about it.” Fellow legislators frequently ask her, “Have you done research on (a certain issue)?"

Notwithstanding, she pushed legislation she knew wouldn't be popular. She ran a bill that would eliminate the income tax deduction for dependents (read: children) as a way to collect an extra $400 million for education. Predictably, the bill never got off the ground, but she thinks it marked progress. “I knew it wouldn’t pass,” she says, “but it’s completely changed the dialogue, which we needed to do. I’ve been told by key legislators that the work I’ve done on that bill has changed the dynamic on education spending.”

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Jones also sponsored bills that effected the following changes: require parents to accompany minors to tanning salons, improve the state’s high school literacy education by certifying teachers to teach the subject and requiring a final exam, and increase education for doctors about the dangers of narcotics and substance abuse. She also helped draft legislation that puts more teeth in laws designed to protect senior citizens from fraud, abuse and neglect.

With all that behind her, Jones will leave the Senate at the end of the year and turn to something new. “I’m not sure, but I don’t see myself retiring,” she says. “There’s too much to do.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com