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Shurtleff enjoys public service

2 candidates aren't afraid of taking a stand

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's campaign likes to label the 6-foot-5-inch Republican a big Boy Scout, a man who continues to live up to that organization's oath to do his best to do his duty.

There certainly is a boyish side to the former Salt Lake County commissioner who's seeking a second term as the state's chief law-enforcement officer, like the models of movie monsters displayed in his office that he purchased to replace the set he built as a child.

His wife, M'Liss, recognizes it. She recently gave her husband a copy of the Disney classic "Pollyanna" for his 47th birthday. The movie's title character plays the "Glad Game," looking for something to be happy about no matter how bleak the situation.

"She knows I love the message in that," Shurtleff said of his wife. "That's a positive attitude I like to look at. It's all about service. It's all about doing things for other people. That's what Boy Scouts do, and that's what Pollyanna is all about."

That attitude made the transition to the often rough and tumble world of state politics a little difficult for Shurtleff. "I think he was a little bit shocked about the behind-the-scenes stuff," his youngest brother, Kevin, said. "It's a much dirtier game than we had imagined."

Shurtleff's friend since childhood, Jon Tuttle, agreed. "Being attorney general has kind of opened his eyes to the reality of politics. It was difficult at first," Tuttle, a Sandy product developer, said. "He's toughened up."

Kevin Shurtleff, an Orem scientist and businessman, said the four Shurtleff brothers were raised to be idealistic. "We thought public service meant you were really there to serve the public," he said. "You did it because you thought you could help other people."

The oldest Shurtleff son, Mike, is a teacher with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Church Education System in North Carolina. Another brother, Keith, has a law degree but has become an Army chaplain.

Their parents, who still live in the same Sandy home where the brothers grew up, have been on several missions for the LDS Church and are currently serving one in the Dominican Republic.

With the rest of the family away, Kevin Shurtleff has taken on the responsibility of reminding his brother of those long-ago lessons. The candidate says his brother's role is to keep him grounded.

"Kevin's always talking about principles," Shurtleff said. "He constantly is telling me, 'Mark, you don't stick your finger in the air, you don't test the polls, you don't ever worry about if I do this, will it help me get votes. . . . That's not the reason to make a decision.' "

Shurtleff acknowledged he was surprised at how state politics are played but stopped short of calling it dirty. "I wouldn't say dirty necessarily, but there are a lot of different motives," he said, adding quickly that most of the elected officials he deals with are well-intentioned.

"They want to serve the public just like I do. Yet some of the processes people go through . . . I wonder sometimes about whether decisions are being made based on principle," Shurtleff said.

He said it is unfair that his "independent, reasoned legal advice" has been criticized by officials including the governor and members of the Legislature just because he told them something they didn't want to hear.

"My job to the people who elected me is to give my best legal advice," he said. "They don't have to follow my advice. I don't make policy. But to attack or to suggest other reason or motives for that is disappointing."

Shurtleff was, well, disappointed at the reaction he received when he spoke out against the anti-gay marriage amendment going before voters this November. Shurtleff, who opposes same-sex marriage, called the Legislature's proposed constitutional change "a bad law."

He said he debated whether to make his concerns about the amendment's language public. "I thought, 'Oh boy, here's a tough one. Do I say anything politically? Everybody's saying be quiet,' " Shurtleff recalled. In the end, he said he owed it to voters to speak up.

Lawmakers were furious, especially since Shurtleff hadn't raised any concerns about the amendment before they approved it. "A lot of people said, 'Well, you didn't speak up during the session so you have to shut up now.' I've never understood that," he said.

He said he didn't examine the amendment wording closely until after the session ended and his counterpart in Nebraska pointed out the potential legal problems with some of the language. His resulting opposition has cost him votes, he concedes.

Still, Shurtleff maintains a comfortable lead in the polls and is already talking about whether he would consider running for an unprecedented third term. He joked that he'd like to win with around 60 percent of the vote to give him some leverage with lawmakers.

That's a real possibility. The most recent Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll showed Shurtleff leading 57 percent to just 20 percent for his Democratic opponent, Salt Lake attorney Greg Skordas.

Not bad for a candidate who says he doesn't like campaigning. "I know that some people do. I've heard them say that they thrive on it," Shurtleff said. For him, though, he hates the time it takes away his family life.

His wife is a very private person who does not like the public spotlight, Shurtleff said. She stays away from the campaign trail, as do their children. They have five children, three still in elementary school, and decided they didn't want their lives disrupted by the campaign.

Even as a youngster, though, Shurtleff was intrigued by politics. His earliest political memory is his parent's support of Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. Tuttle, his friend since grade school, remembers Shurtleff saying he was going to be president someday.

"I don't know if his thoughts have changed on that," Tuttle said. "I see him as a very passionate and sincere person in whatever he's doing. He's always been like that. Ever since I've known him, he always wanted to be a public figure."

Shurtleff had an early taste of political success when he was elected student body president at Brighton High School in 1975, his senior year. He was also a member of "The Buds," a group of friends that stayed together through college at Brigham Young University.

"We were just a bunch of friendly guys that palled around and tried to make girls laugh," Tuttle said. They performed in a barbershop quartet and played sports, including football and basketball.

Shurtleff went on to law school and then joined the U.S. Navy, where he served as a lawyer with the Judge Advocate General Corps for four years. After his military duty ended, he was an attorney in private practice in Southern California.

Getting involved in local politics in California convinced Shurtleff that he should run for office. That meant moving back home to Utah, where he first spent four years as an assistant attorney general for the state and two years as a deputy county attorney.

Part of his duties then for the Attorney General's Office including lobbying lawmakers. That sparked interest in running for the Legislature, Shurtleff said, an ambition he was talked out of by friends who thought he could do more as a county commissioner.

"That's a lot different race, countywide versus one little district in Sandy. But I thought, 'Hey, why not try it?' " Shurtleff said. He toyed with running for county mayor four years ago but said his love of the law persuaded him to jump into the attorney general's race.

And just like the Boy Scout motto, he's already preparing himself for the next campaign — if there is one.

"There's never been a three-term attorney general. Everybody says in politics, it's timing. It depends on what opens up, what's available, who wins this time," he said. "It's tough convincing the family, the wife. We struggle . . . my job takes so much time away."

Politics isn't Shurtleff's only interest. He's working on a novel about Dred Scott, the slave who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and galvanized opposition to slavery, which led to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

"I love my history," Shurtleff said, with the same enthusiasm he used to describe his love of old monster movies. He said he devoured stories about various periods in American history as a child and as an adult.

Love of his country still moves Shurtleff to tears, as do some of the cases he's seen as attorney general. "I'm a very emotional guy. I cry. I cry a lot. When it comes to my family or my country or other people and their stories, I often cry in public," he said.

He's concerned that some people think the tears are insincere. "I worry about that because what do people think? Crocodile tears. A politician looking for sympathy, looking for votes. I don't like it when I do it," Shurtleff said. "But I don't want to lose it."