Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, actually read all 1,150 pages of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Then he talked repeatedly to President Clinton and Cabinet members about it.He traveled to Mexico to investigate it. He talked to labor unions and businesses. He held town meetings. And he swears he didn't make up his mind against it until he voted - which was a few minutes after NAFTA achieved enough votes to pass anyway.

"That's typical of him," his father, Donald, says. "He's always looked at all the angles before he makes up his mind. . . . But once he's done that and made a plan, I've never known him not to accomplish anything he wanted to do."

"Except get married. But someone else is involved in that decision," Rep. Orton, 45, says - but more about that later.

True to form, Orton has been studying for months and talking to scores of people about whether he should run for the Senate. Those close to him say he still sways on the question. He has vowed to announce a decision soon after the first of the year.

Friends and family say such agonizing shows what Orton is truly like: a studious workaholic (one who even made it through law school in just two years); someone with a deep commitment to serve others; and someone who is fiercely independent.


His mother, Carroll, remembers her son was already a workaholic in high school when he grew up in North Ogden.

"When he was a senior, he would go to school in the morning, come home just about long enough to change and eat, work at the Internal Revenue Service for a full shift, come home after midnight and study until 2:30 in the morning," she said.

In years before that, he was always up early, too, with jobs milking cows. Carroll Orton says part of the incentive may have been "we wouldn't let any of our kids have cars unless they earned the money themselves for gas, tires and insurance."

And young Bill Orton loved his black Thunderbird. "He even used to dress in black clothes all the time. His older brother had a white Thunderbird, and he dressed in white," Carroll said.

Also, the Ortons taught their children to work and made them help with animals they raised. "They had to because I was often gone for 24 hours at a time," said Donald, who was a firefighter at Hill Air Force Base.

Extra work followed, even when the family went on camping trips. Carroll said her five children - including middle child Bill - were taught "to leave the campsite cleaner than we found it. We always picked up the trash around it - even if it wasn't ours. We used to sweep around the fire pits."

Being a workaholic allowed Orton to finish law school at Brigham Young University in two years. "I took as many credit hours as they would allow. And I went during spring and summer," he says.

Not long afterward, he formed a business to combine his decade of work as an IRS agent before law school plus his legal training to give seminars nationwide on tax laws - which made him wealthy but also had him working and traveling long hours.

"I remember watching him in a seminar. He looked so young in front of a room full of silver-haired accountants and attorneys. But he was very comfortable answering their detailed questions about tax law. He really is brilliant," said former girlfriend Kandis Kelly Gasdis.

Orton's parents complain their son still works 18-hour days, seven days a week. Three of those - Tuesday through Thursday - are generally in Washington. Friday, Saturday and Monday are usually for trips and work in Utah.

"And he really doesn't even get Sunday off because he's a high council member in his stake (a group of congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and it seems like he goes from morning to night with that," Carroll Orton said.

"To show how bad it gets, his birthday is in September, and we visited his house in December and found some birthday cards he had never opened. He is so busy he didn't take time to open his personal mail," she said.

"I tell him he needs to take time off for himself, but he never does," Donald Orton says.

Sheldon Kinsel, Orton's top aide who has worked for several other members of Congress, adds, "I've never seen a member who is so eclectic in the types of issues he knows in detail. Members usually become expert on a few things. But he works hard on details of things from health care to tax policy and NAFTA."

Aides (and former aides) also say that his exacting demands run his staff ragged and make it hard for them to please their boss. It may be one reason that only four of the original 20 aides he hired are still with him three years later.

Desire to serve others

Those close to Orton say the reason he stays so busy is an overwhelming desire to serve others.

"He is the most unselfish person I know," Donald Orton says.

For example, he treats his parents often to trips to places such as Hawaii and Alaska. He made his home at the Sundance resort large enough so that it could accommodate his parents, his siblings and all their children.

"The whole family often has Thanksgiving or Christmas there together," Carroll said.

His parents said when Bill's youngest sister had been teased at school, he - as a teenager - started to pick her up everyday in his car and treat her to ice cream on the way home.

Family and friends tell other stories, too, like about the time he heard that a young woman he had taught as a missionary in Oregon had become homeless and was living in a car in Hawaii.

They say he paid to bring her to live in a rental home he owned in Utah and helped support her for two years while she went to school and got back on her feet.

He's known to give extra money for Christmas presents to those who need it, to donate food and items anonymously, help friends find jobs and help with medical and other expenses.

"I don't like to talk about that. When you talk about that publicly, it loses its whole purpose," Orton says. "Serving others is something my family taught me and my church. That's how you find real joy."

It also led him to do such things as volunteer for the ski patrol at Snowbasin - even though he has bad knees. "When he was taking a test for the ski patrol . . . his knees went out. They got him down the mountain and put him in his car. He drove home and sat in the driveway honking the horn. I went out, and he said, `Mom you need to take me to the hospital,' " Caroll said.

It didn't stop him from continuing with the patrol.

Orton says serving others is also why he decided to first run for Congress.

"I was giving tax seminars, and someone asked me why I didn't get involved and try to change things that I know a lot about," he said. "I want to change things and believe I can. I find most people in public office - whether it be me, Orrin Hatch or Mike Leavitt - have that same desire."

Orton cut his yearly law-career salary of $250,000-plus by half to serve in Congress. "There's no doubt I could earn more money and have more time to myself if I weren't in Congress. But I believe I can make a difference. But I don't want to do this all my life either. I want to make my contribution and get out."

Fierce independence

His decision to run - and how he's acted in office since - showed off a third main trait: fierce independence that sometimes leads to surprising behavior.

"I never heard him talk about politics until he told us he was going to run for Congress," Carroll Orton said. "We just looked at each other and couldn't believe it when he told us."

His parents tried a bit to dissuade him. Carroll said, "I don't like politicians, and I still don't. They talk for 15 minutes and never answer your question. He said, `I won't be a politician. And if you ever see me becoming one, tell me and I'll get out.' "

A friend, Nick Gasdis, remembers Orton was having dinner with him and some other law clients when he dropped the bombshell. "We thought he was kidding. Then we told him he was crazy to run as a Democrat in the most Republican district in the nation. He said he didn't think he would win but had to try because he was tired of just complaining about things."

Even the national Democratic Party wished him well but told him it could not put in any money in such a long-shot race.

Orton proceeded to win an unwinnable race by casting himself as a conservative. Republican infighting helped, as did an ad that backfired when an opponent attacked him for being single - saying that wouldn't allow him to understand Utah family values.

After he won, the first of repeating rumors spread that conservative Orton was really a Republican and considered switching parties - which he has always denied but isn't overly surprised by them.

"I've never voted a straight-party ticket in my life - which may not be the wisest thing to admit as a sitting Democratic member of Congress," Orton said.

His parents say they never voted a straight ticket either and, unlike their son, never strongly identified with either political party. "I vote for the person who does the best job, who gives me confidence and who has the best ideas," Carroll said.

In Congress, Orton votes with President Clinton, for example, only 62 percent of the time and with the Democratic majority only 60 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly.

That has led several House leaders and some Democrats at home to grouse about his lack of loyalty. It hasn't stopped many Republicans from trying to paint him as a liberal. "But I vote for what I think is right. I think my constituents support me," he said.

Orton said he tries to truly keep an open mind on issues and listen to competing views. His father notes he tries to have as many town meetings as possible to listen to voters and does things such as working for a day as a steelworker without publicity to better learn their views.

That independent streak led Orton into several hobbies that Carroll says "are designed to scare his mother to death."

That included scuba diving and learning how to fly an airplane when he had to travel as a Portland-based IRS agent.

"When he came to town, he would buzz the house until I went outside. Then he would wag the wings. That was my signal to go to the airport to pick him up," Carroll said.

Not a confirmed bachelor

The long hours, independence and service all combined to work against Orton marrying, so far - which became an issue (but an ineffective one) in both his House campaigns as critics claimed that made him unable to understand Utah family values.

"Getting married is the most important thing in life to me, but it has to be done in the right way. You should marry your best friend, and she should be someone you can't live without. I've felt that way about some, but they didn't about me," he said.

Kandis Gasdis was one who turned him down after dating him for four years. But she says the most surprising thing about Orton is that he wanted to remain friends with her and the man she chose to marry anyway.

Her husband, Nick, remembers, "Bill and I dated Kandis at the same time. I didn't know him well, but naturally there was an adversarial relationship there. . . .

"About three months after we were married, he left a message for me at work. I thought he was going to bomb my car or something. But when I called, he said if Kandis married me I must be a good person, and that he would like to be friends. He invited us to his place and cooked a gourmet dinner. We've been friends ever since," Nick said.

Orton's relationship with the Gasdis family is not unique. As Orton says, "Another woman who decided not to marry me (before Gasdis) lives in Iowa. She and her family travel to visit me every year. The kids call me Uncle Bill," he said about that family's ski trips to Sundance.

"Each dating relationship evolves differently. Although they don't develop into a husband-wife relationship, I don't want to lose a friend. When you devote a lot of time developing a friendship with someone, it should be for life," Orton said.

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Carroll Orton said, "I used to be concerned about him not getting married, but I'm not so much anymore. He loves children and his family and is good to us. I think he will get married in time - and maybe to someone who already has children."

But she says, "He's too busy and away too much. Girls don't want to wait around for him that long." Even Orton agrees, "My schedule right now makes a social life almost impossible."

Meanwhile, he still has his extended family. "All the grandchildren love him and are always around him because he's fun," Carroll Orton said.

He says his love of family and children is one reason he serves in Congress. "I want to make the world better for them, and think I can" - even if that makes him work long days and suffer through all 1,150 pages of the NAFTA treaty.

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