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Politics charted hopeful's course

Brian, right, and Marian Wangsgard talk politics with Salt Lake mayoral candidate Frank Pignanelli during a campaign rally at Lindsey Gardens.
Brian, right, and Marian Wangsgard talk politics with Salt Lake mayoral candidate Frank Pignanelli during a campaign rally at Lindsey Gardens.
Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

Frank Pignanelli is, in large part, a creature of politics. It brought him to the altar, determined his career, even led him to wearing disguises.

Once, Pignanelli disguised himself with a wig and goofy clothes to sneak into a Salt Lake County GOP convention — along with wife D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli — to set up a booth and stick signs around the hall for the re-election of his mother-in-law, former GOP county recorder Katie Dixon.

"We didn't want anyone to recognize us — two well-known Democrats helping out D'Arcy's mom in her tough re-election fight," recalls Pignanelli with a smile.

Now the 43-year-old Pignanelli enters the biggest political race of his life.

Approaching the Oct. 7 Salt Lake City mayoral primary, Pignanelli, an attorney and lobbyist, is running just behind Mayor Rocky Anderson. If voting in the primary follow the polls, Anderson and Pignanelli will meet in the November final election, a showdown between two Democratic lawyers determined to run the next administration in the state's largest city.

Young wannabe politicians are often mentored by veterans. In Pignanelli's case, his mentoring started in 1976 when, after "screwing up" a high school history project, he sought extra credit. His teacher, a staunch Democrat, said she'd give it if Pignanelli worked on Scott M. Matheson's gubernatorial campaign.

A practical civics lesson, she said, so the teen-teenager rode his Olympic 10-speed bike from his Cottonwood house down to Matheson's campaign headquarters.

"They gave me a bunch of flyers to pass out," he said. "I passed out like 1,000. They couldn't believe it. And they then put me in charge of several Sandy precincts. Matheson won those, and won the election. I was hooked" on campaigning and politics.

More campaigns followed. Connections were made.

Pignanelli's name became known in Democratic circles.

Moving on to the University of Utah, Pignanelli was elected president of the student assembly and oversaw a discretionary budget. The job proved beneficial in more ways than one. D'Arcy Dixon, who was serving in the cabinet of the ASSU president, wanted some money for "some kind of women's concert thing" and came to Pignanelli asking for cash. An off-and-on dating schedule ensued.

"We went out for seven years before I asked her to marry me," Pignanelli said. But that proposal, too, had a political side.

D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli tells the story a bit differently than Frank. After hearing a reporter repeat Pignanelli's version, she hoots and says: "You clearly got the caveman version. Here's the truth:"

After dating for four years, she moved to Washington, D.C., for a summer, which stretched into a year. Pignanelli pleaded with her to come back. Believing a marriage proposal awaited, she returned.

"My birthday passes, Thanksgiving and Christmas passes, no marriage proposal. Finally, I asked him to marry me. He says he's not ready for marriage."

But he was ready to make his first run for political office and in 1986 sought a seat in the state House of Representatives. D'Arcy agreed to be his campaign manager, until he introduced her as his fiance at a campaign event.

"I'd never heard that word from him. How can we be engaged when he's never asked me to marry him!" she said. "Later that day, I say I can't do this anymore. I don't know if I'm your campaign manager, your girlfriend, your finance. I say goodbye, good luck, and walk out."

"I was stunned," says Pignanelli. "Just before the election, too."

But she came back, after Pignanelli bought her a small pearl ring from ZCMI _ one she had already picked out. They agree to be married later, after the election. She comes back. "I got my campaign manager and girlfriend back" in one swoop, Pignanelli smiles.

"I know a good thing when I see it. And I knew from the minute I met him that I wanted to marry Frank Pignanelli, he's such a great person. So I hung in there," says D'Arcy.

Then it was her turn to delay the ceremony for months while she ran her own campaign to be elected state Democratic Party secretary in the spring of 1987.

D'Arcy currently is chief of staff to Murray Mayor Dan Snarr, the third Democratic city administration she's worked for in Salt Lake County. She also ran for state treasurer in 1996 and was vice chair of the state party for four years.

Pignanelli won his House seat in 1986 along with 12 other new Democrats, nearly doubling the minority membership. Nicknamed the Young Turks, the new members by 1990 decided to challenge the old guard Democratic incumbents for leadership. Pignanelli was elected minority leader, Grant Protzman whip and Kelly Atkinson assistant whip.

His work as a legislator also translated into employment opportunities. Soon Pignanelli went to work for Atkinson's school employee union as its legal advisor, while keeping some private legal clients as well. Within a few years, with the aid of lobbyist/lawyer Doug Foxley (who would later become Pignanelli's lobbyist partner), Pignanelli was hired by BlueCross BlueShield health insurance as its Utah corporate attorney.

While Pignanelli loved the House, family and career requirements were pulling him away. Longing for children but unable to have them, the Pignanellis adopted a baby daughter in 1995. After invitro fertilization procedures, D'Arcy gave birth to twin boys in 2001.

After getting their baby girl, he said, "I couldn't be a good father, corporate attorney and legislator all at the same time, so I retired" from the House in 1996.

But he still kept his hand in politics.

In early 1998 Pignanelli left BlueCross BlueShield to set up his own lobbying partnership with Foxley and former GOP legislator Nancy Lyon. A year after that he and Foxley joined the law firm Jones Waldo Holbrook & McDonough as an attorney/lobbyist duo. Foxley has since left the firm but Pignanelli says the pair still keep some joint lobbying clients, run out of the partnership's 600 East offices.

In 2002, Pignanelli, Foxley, the Utah Education Association and others organized a citizen petition campaign aimed at increasing hazardous waste fees to help fund public education and aid the homeless. A bitter public battle ensued and the complicated initiative failed at the ballot box. But the fight energized Pignanelli again for a campaign.

"Many of us believed we needed a change in City Hall," said Pignanelli.

He wanted wanted Dave Jones, one of the Young Turks in the House, to run again. Jones had narrowly been eliminated in mayoral primaries in 1999 and 1995.

"When Dave declined, people started coming to me," Pignanelli said.

He said Republicans and Democrats told him a non-Mormon moderate like himself could win.

Pignanelli thought about what he believed the city needed, who was doing the job now and decided last December to run.

And he wasn't hampered by running against a fellow Democrat. Anderson and Pignanelli once engaged in a heated face-to-face shouting match in the underground parking lot of the Capitol, the result of hard feelings left over from a 1996 U.S. House primary battle between Anderson and Atkinson.

But Jones says Pignanelli is someone who can mend fences as well.

"Frank really can bring people together," said Jones. "He genuinely cares. One of the biggest problems you have with Frank is you can't walk anywhere with him. He stops and talks to everyone. If he wasn't a lawyer, he would have made a great stand up comedian. You go to dinner with Frank and D'Arcy, you can count on interesting conversation and laughing through the whole meal."

Pignanelli says he will be in politics for some time to come. "D'Arcy and I have been in it so long, it's part of our lives." But if he does lose the mayor's race, he won't be in elective politics for a few years. "Probably not until the kids are older," he said.

And then — "Who knows?"


E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com