PROVO — Five months ago, on the very first minute of the very first day you could do it, Michelle Kaufusi walked into the recorder’s office at Provo City Hall to file as a candidate in the mayor’s race.
Then she walked upstairs to see what she was facing: 166 years of all-male history.
In a hallway outside the mayor’s suite of offices hang framed pictures of every Provo mayor since the first one, Ellis Eames, took office in 1851. There are 41 of them in all. Every one is a man.
Some people in the city offices had alerted Kaufusi about the wall after she’d finished her paperwork — the first of 10 candidates who declared their candidacy that week.
“You ought to go up there and take a look,” she was told.
“I didn’t really believe them,” she recalls. “So I walked up and saw that wall and all those rows and rows and rows of Caucasian men, and they were right — so that made me more determined than ever.”
After that, she campaigned like a revolutionary. She became a ubiquitous presence at city meetings. She got herself appointed to the citizen’s advisory board. She plastered the town with "Kaufusi for Mayor" signs. She rang doorbells and talked till midnight.
Until Election Day, Nov. 7, when she peeked at the returns through her fingers, not sure if she could allow herself to believe what she was seeing: Provo, that bastion of patriarchal conservatism, had just elected its first female mayor. And it was her.
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It’s natural to assume it came easy for Kaufusi, what with her sports connections and terrific name recognition in a place where things like that matter.
Her husband, Steve, played football for the hometown BYU Cougars under the legendary LaVell Edwards and now coaches the linebackers; daughter Alexis played basketball at BYU and is now head coach of the girls team at Orem’s Mountain View High School; sons Bronson and Corbin have starred (Bronson) and are starring (Corbin) in football and basketball for BYU, while youngest son Devin, recently returned from an LDS mission, is a freshman on the BYU football team. (Devin’s twin sister, Daryl, also just back from a mission, somehow slipped away and is playing soccer at BYU-Hawaii).
But before she was Michelle Kaufusi — wife and mom of all those athletes — she was Michelle Garrick, one of seven children who grew up getting free lunch at Provo's Wasatch Elementary School for the obvious reason: They couldn’t afford to buy it. No one got in the headlines for that.
Theirs, she recalls, was not the prototypical Provo family. Unlike the majority of the town, Michelle’s father, Ilyn, was not a member of the LDS Church. Also unlike the majority of the town, he smoked and drank, sometimes a lot — a factor that Michelle says contributed to his leaving the family when Michelle was 6.
At that point, her mother, Janet, went back to school, enrolling at Trade Tech, the forerunner to Utah Valley University, to become a nurse. Once she certified she signed up for the graveyard shift at the Central Utah Medical Clinic, working 7 to 7 six days a week so she could provide for her family and still be home during the daytime.
If you want to choke Kaufusi up, ask her how her mother, who passed away from cancer in 1998, would react to her latest triumph.
“You’re going to make me cry,” she says. “Every time I think of my mom, I think she’d be so proud. Oh my word she’d be so proud.”
Working and making their own money was not an option for the Garrick kids.
“I’ve worked since I was 8 years old,” says Kaufusi, the sixth in a lineup of four girls and three boys, all of whom would go on to earn their degrees from BYU. (Michelle’s older brother Craig was captain of the 1984 BYU football team that won the national championship. Tragically, Craig died in 2001 from complications due to addiction to painkillers; two years later, Michelle’s oldest brother David, an orthopedic surgeon, also died from opioid addiction).
Michelle Kaufusi worked her way through her teenage years at the Farmer in the Deli, a sandwich shop on Center Street not far from City Hall, while getting elected student body president at Provo High. In the classroom she made A’s and was awarded an academic scholarship to attend the university across the street.
At BYU, she auditioned for and was accepted onto the school’s drill team, the Cougarettes. It was while she was on a road trip with the Cougarettes to Anaheim for the football team’s appearance in the 1986 Freedom Bowl that she was introduced to Steve Kaufusi, a native of Tonga who had moved with his family to Salt Lake City when he was 8 years old.
The couple married three years later, when Michelle Kaufusi was in her senior year of college and Steve Kaufusi was playing professional football with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. The couple’s first two children, Alexis and Bronson, were born in Pennsylvania. After Steve’s pro career ended in the early 1990s, the Kaufusis returned to Utah. They lived in Salt Lake City while Steve attended graduate school at the University of Utah and started his college coaching career with the Utes.
The family returned to their Provo roots in 2002 when Steve Kaufusi joined the BYU football staff, where he has remained a mainstay, lasting through three head coaches.
While her husband coached, Michelle Kaufusi held down the homefront, and her chosen role as full-time mother was hardly influenced or defined by her athletically proficient offspring.
“I’m the mom who always put academics above any sporting event,” she states proudly. “If they didn’t have their piano done, they didn’t go to practice.”
Sports has never been her strong suit, she admits. “Last week I told Corbin (after watching a BYU game) I noticed his costume was pulled up and he needed to keep it tucked in. ‘Mother, it is a uniform,’ he told me. ‘Quit calling it a costume’ — and that was just last week.”
Being involved in her children’s schooling, however, was always her strong suit. When the kids were young, she joined the elementary school Parent Teacher Association, then it was the middle school PTA, then president of the high school PTA.
It was that hands-on involvement that led to her being encouraged to run for a position on the Provo City School District Board of Education. She first ran in 2010 and won, beating an incumbent. In 2014 she ran for a second four-year term and won again. (That term has another year to run, but she had to resign from the board after being elected mayor.)
“That was my launching pad into public administration and public service,” she says of her years on the school board — a time that introduced her to politicians, political operatives and supporters who encouraged her to think about running for mayor after John Curtis, whose second term would have ended in January of 2018, announced he wouldn’t seek a third term.
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All of which leads us back to the scene in the filing office this past June 1, Kaufusi’s subsequent visit to the wall of males, and the mayoral campaign that, as Kaufusi’s daughter put it, “shattered the glass ceiling in Provo.”
Is Kaufusi proud of the blow she’s struck for women? “Of course,” she says. “It’s historical. I won’t downplay it. We’ve been a city since, what, 1849? And I’m the first woman? There were a lot of stereotypes that had to be overcome. Sexism is still alive and well in some places. I have some great ideas how to get young girls engaged in local government and educate them and say, ‘This is possible. If I can do it, you can do it.’”
“Who would have thought that me, a little girl who was born and raised in Provo by a single mom, would end up landing here?” she says, just itching to get to her inauguration in January.
“I’m beyond excited. Please let me swear to marry the city on that Bible and let’s get going.”