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Vote surprised Juab attorney

Eldridge wanted name recognition, didn’t expect win

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NEPHI — Jared Eldridge knows there was a tapestry of complex variables — some beyond his control — that brought him victory against a member of one of Utah's most powerful political families.

But the newly elected Juab County attorney likes to think that old-fashioned shoe-leather campaigning played a big part.

As an attorney whose only experience out of law school has been four years as a public defender, Eldridge, a Democrat in a very conservative county, took the realist's approach to running against a two-term county attorney who happens to be the brother of Utah's sitting governor and who became known worldwide as the man who successfully prosecuted polygamist Tom Green.

Eldridge said he has never had any political aspirations. "I didn't even run for office in high school," he said. But when he was approached by friends and colleagues to run against David Leavitt, Eldridge thought it would be an easy way to get his name out for when he went into private practice.

Determined to give a Republican a run for his money, Eldridge said he hit the neighborhoods of Juab County, going door to door introducing himself and talking to people. In all, Eldridge estimated he knocked on the doors of more than 2,000 homes.

In November's election, Eldridge beat Leavitt by just 22 votes out of some 2,730 cast for county attorney. "I think everybody was surprised," Eldridge said. "My goal, when I set out, was to make a good showing. I wanted to try to get 35 to 40 percent of the vote. Just to make a good showing and not be embarrassed, I guess."

Eldridge, who was reared in Topeka, Kan., attended Brigham Young University before heading to Oregon for law school.

His first law job came when he was hired to be a public defender in Salt Lake County, which he did for two years.

The 33-year-old then served two years with the Utah County Public Defender's Association. Because his wife teaches high school in Sanpete County, living in Nephi was a compromise.

They have been there a little more than three years.

A pensive Eldridge, sitting in what was Leavitt's office, knows he's starting from scratch.

Almost all the furniture in the office had belonged to Leavitt.

Seated among bare walls, a humble table and stacks of law books recently orphaned from their oak bookcases, Eldridge said he is starting a new chapter in Juab County history.

Many have speculated that Juab County residents were soured by Leavitt's prosecution of Green, an endeavor that spanned three years and put Juab County and Utah on the map as ground zero over the practice of polygamy in modern times.

On May 18, 2001, a jury found Green guilty on counts of criminal nonsupport and bigamy for fathering more than 30 children with five women. On June 24, 2002, a 4th District judge found Green guilty of child rape for fathering a child with head wife Linda Kunz-Green when she was 13. Green is serving a five-year to life sentence at the Utah State Prison. He is appealing his bigamy conviction, and challenging Utah's use of the bigamy statute to prosecute polygamists, to the Utah Supreme Court.

Although he acknowledges that the prosecution of Green may have counted against Leavitt during the election, Eldridge said he does not believe it was a big factor.

"It's hard for me to put my finger on it. Out of all the doors I knocked, very few people brought up Tom Green. Very few people seemed to be too concerned about that. I'm sure that it did play some part, but I'm not sure it was a major part in this election," Eldridge said, adding he could count on one hand the people who thought Green was a negative factor against Leavitt.

Eldridge said people he talked to simply wanted a change. Green wasn't even a campaign issue.

"I don't criticize Dave for prosecuting Tom Green. I think that he did what he felt like he needed to do," Eldridge said. When asked what he would do if confronted with a polygamy case, Eldridge said he would take a different approach.

"I know there are polygamists in this county, and that's something that could come up," he said. "I'm not going to go out looking for polygamists to prosecute by any means. Everybody just needs to be treated the same, and if we have a situation where somebody is having sexual contact with a young lady who is 16 or younger, I would prosecute that vigorously. If that person would happen to be a polygamist, I don't know if I would bring the polygamy issue into it. I think it would be more of a distraction," Eldridge said.

Having limited law experience, Eldridge said he worries less about polygamy and more about being a good attorney. "I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. Being prepared for tomorrow, that's what concerns me now. We've got an automobile homicide preliminary hearing coming up, and I need to be prepared for that and make sure I represent the county well," he said.

Eldridge acknowledges the chance that Leavitt's legacy could come back to Juab County. There is a chance that the Utah Supreme Court may grant Green a new trial, in which case Eldridge might find himself in a tough position. "It depends on what issue they come back on," he said. If the child rape charge comes back, he'd push forward, but if the bigamy case came back, Eldridge said he would have to do some heavy thinking before going forward.

Leavitt spent several hours with Eldridge after the election, talking about county matters and about Green. Eldridge said Leavitt did leave him with some advice.

"He just told me that there will be times that you'll feel really alone. You'll feel like the whole world is against you and you'll just have to stand up and do what you feel is right," Eldridge said.

For now, Eldridge said he doesn't dwell on the past but on his future as the new Juab County attorney. "I'm just trying to keep my feet on the ground, my head in the right direction and do the best that I can."

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com