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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Rashelle Hobbs, who will be taking over as Salt Lake County recorder, poses for a photo in front of her home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. Hobbs says she doesn't have grass because she chose to pay for a billboard instead.

SALT LAKE CITY — Rashelle Hobbs says she knows there are some who view her as a "Barbie doll."

She's 5 feet 10 inches tall and a blue-eyed blonde. She likes to wear high heels and nice clothes. She and her husband Lance, a chemical engineer, live in a big, custom-built house.

And yet, Hobbs — a 42-year-old Democrat who recently beat the Republican incumbent to become Salt Lake County's next recorder — says there's much more to her than her appearance and her nice house.

Nonetheless, Hobbs expects to be judged for her looks or her clothes because that's just part of being a woman in politics, she said.

"Once you get to know me, I'm not a Barbie doll," she said. "I'm not into labels. I don't like labels for really anyone. … I don't have pigment in my hair and I am a female, and I do like to look nice, but it certainly does not define me."

Instead, Hobbs said she and her husband built their lives from the ground up. He was raised by a single mother and "nothing was handed to him." She spent 15 years working her way up in the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office, first as a seasonal employee in the elections division, then up to chief deputy.

She's a mom of 9-year-old Landon and 5-year-old Rebekah. She has a master's degree in professional communication from Westminster College.

In a recent interview with the Deseret News at her Salt Lake City home, Hobbs joked that when it came down to paying for their new home's lawn or running for office this year, she opted to deal with a muddy yard until next spring.

"My son said, 'Mom, why don't we have grass?' And I said, 'Son, we have a billboard,'" Hobbs said, laughing.

Hobbs' decision to run for elected office was new territory for her — although it was in her blood.

As a child, Hobbs said she'd go to honk-and-waves for her grandfather, George Diehl, when he'd run to be Tooele mayor. He held the seat for 11 years, from 1983 to 1994.

She remembers the excitement of the election and remembers thinking, "I really need my grandpa to win."

"But I did see running for office comes with criticism," Hobbs said. "Sometimes the nastiest elections can be the local mayoral runs."

Little did she know, despite the nastiness, her grandfather's public service would inspire her later in life to enter politics. She called her grandfather her most "significant mentor."

"I remember him saying, 'People are always going to have an opinion about you, so why not do the right thing?'" Hobbs said.

Plus, she said she wanted to challenge herself.

"I wanted to see what I was capable of," she said. "I felt like this was the time to go out on my own and do it my way. I ran based on who I am, and I think there is something to be said about authenticity. And I won."

'Thick skin'

Hobbs, sitting in her living room, was animated as she spoke — making hand gestures, laughing, leaning forward in her seat. But when she spoke again of her grandfather, who died at the age of 99 just before he got his by-mail ballot in the mail, Hobbs tucked her chin and looked at the floor.

"He was hoping to stick around long enough to vote for me," Hobbs said. But knowing he was "struggling," she said she told him she would be OK, win or lose, and he could "let go."

"It wasn't soon after that that he passed," Hobbs said.

But before he did, she said he told her: "I'm not worried about you winning. I'm worried about what comes next."

In other words, "politics is a blood sport, and you've got to have thick skin," Hobbs said.

But thanks to watching her grandfather — and growing up with three brothers — Hobbs said she feels her skin is plenty thick.

So whether it's those skeptical of her abilities because of her blond hair, or whether it's stepping into an office with political baggage, Hobbs said she's well-equipped to handle her new role as Salt Lake County recorder — an office she'll officially take over in January.

And the recorder's office has plenty of baggage.

"It's not lost upon me what this staff has been through," Hobbs said.

Past scandal

Hobbs will be the fourth new boss in the Salt Lake County Recorder's Office since the summer of 2017. Her election comes after the Deseret News revealed the office's longtime recorder, Gary Ott, was still collecting a large taxpayer salary while county employees questioned his mental faculties.

Ott, amid his fifth term in office, won re-election in 2014 even though he had been diagnosed with dementia a year before his final campaign. Had attorneys not reached a resignation agreement with his family in July of 2017, he could have stayed in office through 2020. He died in October of 2017.

County employees accused Ott's top staffers, Julie Dole and Karmen Sanone, of hiding Ott's condition so he could keep his high-paying position and so they could keep their jobs. Both women denied those accusations repeatedly while citing efforts to keep Ott's health private.

After Ott's resignation deal was struck, Dole, Ott's deputy, was automatically sworn in. She stayed in the position for 18 days until another Republican, Adam Gardiner, beat her in the county GOP special election after he campaigned to give the recorder's office a fresh start.

But after 15 months in office, Gardiner lost his bid to keep the seat to Hobbs during November's general election.

Hobbs said what happened to Ott was "a huge injustice," and instead of being remembered for the "kindhearted person that he was," people just read about the "scandal."

Looking ahead

Now, Hobbs' first priority is bringing "certainty and stability" to the staff of the recorder's office.

"I've been giving a lot of thought of how I would feel if I was in that office and having that kind of turmoil and change and scandal," Hobbs said. "They were reading about the office they work in in the paper."

Hobbs said her aunt worked in the recorder's office for 35 years. She retired in 2015, right before the concerns around Ott came to light. Hobbs said her aunt later told her about the issues in the office after she "kept her head down and just did her job and tried to make the best of a difficult situation."

"(The staff) deserve a leader who leads from the front and respects them and wants them to be happy and wants to provide an environment where they're proud to be a part of," Hobbs said. "That's my mission."

However, Hobbs — who has kept her distance from the office until Gardiner wraps up his term — said she understands some employees, wary of new leadership, may be wondering what kind of boss she's going to be.

"I'm sure (they're) thinking, 'Who's this Rashelle? What's she like? We see her wearing fancy clothes, we heard she lives in a big house,'" Hobbs said.

Hobbs said she's going to focus on creating a warm, inclusive environment in the recorder's office, with no "cozy inner circles."

"I know it's the people who work in the office that make the department great," she said.

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Hobbs plans to use her experience in the clerk's office — including overseeing "high-stakes" services needed for elections, passports and marriage certificates — to increase transparency and improve customer access.

She said she'll look into possibly increasing flexibility for the office's regular hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

She also hopes to surround herself with the right people to help keep the office on the cutting-edge of technology.

Overall, Hobbs said her vision is to "lead with integrity" and "transparency."