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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
John Curtis speaks in the Republican debate for the 3rd Congressional District race at the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo on Friday, July 28, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Provo Mayor John Curtis, one of three GOP candidates on the 3rd Congressional District primary ballot, is ready with an answer when asked about his brief stint as a Democrat in one of the nation's most Republican districts.

"I had a crazy idea that by another party coming in and also representing what we call family values, voters would have a choice," Curtis recently said in a combined meeting of the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards.

Some 17 years ago, he headed up the Utah County Democratic Party and even ran for the Legislature as a Democrat, something his primary opponents, former state lawmaker Chris Herrod and Alpine lawyer Tanner Ainge, don't want voters to forget.

"I held the Republicans accountable," Curtis recalled. "So on one hand, it was almost a death knell for somebody who wanted to make a difference in politics. On the other hand, I think it was an important statement."

That statement, one he is hoping to be able to take to Washington, D.C., is that no political party has "exclusivity on everything that's good. It is important to be more thoughtful in the way we do things."

Curtis isn't shy about expressing his disappointment that, after "years to prepare for this moment," Republicans in Congress weren't ready under new President Donald Trump with a plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

"It does need to be replaced in my opinion, but I find that the Republicans were saying the same things that bothered some when Obamacare came in: … 'Let’s just get it passed, and we’ll figure it out,'" he said, calling that "troubling."

Curtis also has made it clear he didn't vote for Trump in last year's presidential election, although he supports much of the Republican president's agenda and identifies with his "disruptor" style.

Curtis is nearly finished with his second four-year term as mayor of the largest city in the 3rd District, which includes portions of Utah and Salt Lake counties, as well as Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan and Wasatch counties.

It's a position he calls "the best job in the world," even though he'd already decided not to run for re-election when now-former 3rd District Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, announced he was leaving office early.

"That one did hit us abruptly," Curtis' wife, Sue, said. Sue Curtis said her husband, the former CEO of Provo-based Action Target, a global leader in the shooting range business, was already weighing private sector opportunities.

"You know what? If anyone has a chance of making a difference, it's John with his skill set. It's a bit of a sacrifice, in all honesty, to have that separation," she said, noting that the youngest of their six children is starting college.

The home health physical therapist said her husband is "very conservative in his ideals and fiscal responsibility."

But because he "goes about it with an eye on how to actually accomplish it instead of just drawing lines in the sand, which so may of them think they have to do now, some groups have it in their heads that he doesn't share their ideals," Sue Curtis said.

As mayor, John Curtis backed replacing bonding for roads with a monthly fee on municipal utility bills, something his wife called a smart move but helped earn him the wrath of Club for Growth and other national conservative organizations.

Curtis' record supporting tax increases in Provo as mayor, including a recreation, arts and parks tax that won the required voter approval in 2015, as well as his time as a Democrat, have been targeted throughout the campaign.

Curtis' response? He cited a poll that showed more than 80 percent of Provo residents believe they're getting a good value for their tax dollars, as well as a recent WalletHub analysis that named Provo the second-best managed city in the country.

"We're proud of things like that," said Curtis, who has also pledged not to raise taxes if elected to Congress, "because I don't believe the problem is the amount of money we're collecting. It's the way that we're spending money."

Corey Norman, Provo's deputy mayor and public information officer, said he could tell Curtis was a conservative soon after they first met, when he was working with then-3rd District Rep. Chris Cannon, a Republican, who served until 2009.

Curtis, then with Action Target, was seeking the former congressman's help with an issue over government contracts, Norman said, and wanted to give them a tour of the company that designs, manufactures and installs shooting ranges.

"Obviously, he's a strong Second Amendment guy," Norman, a lifelong Republican from Texas, said of the visit.

What also struck him, he said, was the condition of the carpeting.

"You could see the holes in the carpet," Norman said. "I say that because this was something they took pride in over there. They were a bootstrap company. And he also understood what certain levels of regulation could do to a business."

Still, when Norman volunteered in Curtis' mayoral campaign, he said his mother-in-law questioned why he was supporting a candidate who used to be a Democrat.

"I told her, 'You should see the way that he approaches his business. You would not even know he'd been a Democrat because of the way he talks about issues and the way he talks about business. He's a free market guy,'" he said.

Maybe more telling, Norman said, were endorsements in the mayor's race from two of Curtis' previous political opponents, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and Herrod, when both were seeking to fill a legislative vacancy.

Bramble easily beat the then-Democrat in 2000. Seven years later, Curtis bested Herrod by a single vote among Republican delegates in the legislative district, but ultimately Herrod was chosen for the Provo-area seat in the state House.

Bill Provencher, CEO of Carey's Small Arms Range Ventilation, a Chicago-based company that partnered with Action Target, said he tried to talk Curtis out of running both for mayor and for Congress.

Provencher, who considers Curtis one of his best friends after years of doing business together without the need for written deals, said he wasn't surprised his advice was ignored.

"He doesn't have any selfishness in him. He is a good person. He does it truly for the community. He's not looking to be popular. He's not looking for an accolades," Provencher said. "That's the way he's been since I met him."

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John Curtis

Age: 57

Party: Republican

Occupation: Provo mayor

Political experience: Former Utah County Democratic Party chairman; ran for Utah Legislature twice, once as a Democrat and once as a Republican

Reason for running: "I like to get things done. I like to make hard decisions and plow through hard problems. I feel like, in many cases, we're missing that. I'm anxious to go try."