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Senate hopeful aims to fight poverty

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Scott Leckman started helping people by becoming a surgeon, operating to save individual lives.

Then he got involved in RESULTS, an international group that lobbies politicians and businessmen to end hunger and poverty.That led him to politics and believing he could make a difference by holding office - and he ran for the Utah State Senate.

Now Leckman has raised his sights higher than he would have ever believed a couple of years ago - this year he runs for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat against Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.

Leckman, a general surgeon working out of St. Mark's Hospital, knows he is the political underdog. But he's not running just to advertise his personal anti-poverty projects. He believes he can win.

"It would be an upset. But if we talk to enough people - people who care about children and what we're doing - we can win this," says the 45-year-old Ogden native who was educated at Stanford and the University of Utah Medical School.

To a great extent, Leckman lives the life he preaches. On the wall of his small office, hooked onto St. Mark's Hospital, hang pictures of people who inspire him: The unknown Chinese demonstrator who stood in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Mahatma Gandhi. Albert Schweitzer. Martin Luther King Jr. Arthur Ashe. And Mohammad Yunus.

Yunus is a personal friend, the Bangladeshi banker/businessman whose changed millions of his contrymen's lives by profiding no-collateral small loans to get them started in basic businesses.

"We all need a little help - a support system," Leckman said looking up at the pictures. "It's too easy to get discouraged, especially in politics."

Especially when you're facing a multimillionaire who put nearly $2 million of his own money into his 1992 election and seeks re-election in one of the most Republican states in the nation.

"Gandhi, Schweitzer, they were just human beings. But what they accomplished - they changed the course of human events," says Leckman.

A modest man, Leckman doesn't expect to do that. But he does what he can. He and his wife, Linda - also a general surgeon who is a vice president of Intermountain Health Care - have adopted two boys from India, giving them a chance at a new life in America.

Leckman says he's donated thousands of volunteer hours to RESULTS, has traveled to Washington, D.C., lobbying congressmen, and just earlier this year went to Bangladesh to personally see how Yunus' Grameen Bank works, hoping to support a similar low-or-no collateral loan program in Utah.

"With welfare reform forcing poor families, poor mothers, off of welfare, we have to find a way" to educate, train and employ the people. At the State Democratic Convention Leckman from the stage introduced a woman who got herself off of welfare by starting her own home-cottage business supported by just such a loan - a success story he says must be repeated time and again in Utah and the United States.

Why Bennett, why this year?

For one main reason, says Leckman: When Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced a bill last year that would raise significantly raise the federal tobacco tax and use the money to fund a state-matching program to provide health insurance to low-income children not on welfare, Bennett opposed Hatch.

"That told me that (Bennett) was comfortable living in a country where kids' access to health care was denied. And I'm not. It was that simple."

Simple. Cut and dried. Clear.

Leckman believes if he can talk to Utahns in those terms, he has a real chance.

But politics these days takes money. And Leckman knows that, too.

He's slowly closing down his surgery practice and will soon donate his full-time efforts to the campaign. He says he needs, at the very least, $250,000.

He won't be providing that money himself, partly because he doesn't have it, partly because he thinks one of the great problems with politics today is campaign financing.

"Especially in Utah, people are just buying their seats" in Congress - Bennett, Enid and Joe Waldholtz, Chris Cannon, Merrill Cook - he lists the names of Utah politicians who put more than $1 million of their own cash into their campaigns.

"Campaign finance reform is critical. I'll be talking a lot about that and make it one of my top priorities when I take my seat in the U.S. Senate," says Leckman.

An optimist? He'd like to think so. But then, he says, so were Gandhi, Schweitzer, and so is Yunus.