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Cannon leaning on brother in time of difficulty — again

MAPLETON — Joe and Chris Cannon stood with their feet spread apart, hands on the car as the Cedar City police officer checked the IDs of their three traveling companions.

Today, such a scene could sink the political and business careers of the powerful Cannon brothers, but this was the summer of 1963. Joe was 13, Chris, 12.

They had done nothing wrong but wound up in a jail cell for safekeeping. As they whiled away that long, strange night, the California boys could not imagine they would return to Utah to build careers, raise families and become famous. And they couldn't know the incident foreshadowed lives filled with ambition and controversy.

Now, 41 years later, four-term Congressman Chris Cannon and his older brother Joe, attorney and chairman of Utah's Republican Party, are again leaning on each other for support as Chris runs for re-election to the 3rd Congressional District while his daughter faces a serious battle with cancer.

"The last month has been very difficult," Chris Cannon conceded. He skipped most of the fall session of Congress to stay with his family and determine treatment for his daughter, who at 25 is fighting a recurrence of the disease that first attacked her in 2001.

"With this health crisis, Joe and my whole family have been very, very good," Cannon said. "But Joe has been there on many occasions when I've really needed him. He's been a matter of comfort to me, and serious comfort for my kids and my wife as well. It's been great to have that relationship back in a time of difficulty."

He said there are no conventional treatments for his daughter's cancer, but as he familiarized himself with terms like antigens and lymphocytes, he has found hope.

"If you had told me a month ago I would spend the time on this I have, I couldn't have believed it. It's a literally astonishing problem that people only get sensitive to when they go through it."

In fact, he's become critical of the cancer research bureaucracy and its practices. If re-elected, he'll attack the system.

"There is a consensus on the problems but no consensus on what to do," he said. "We're going to step in and try to do something to solve it. The hope for my daughter is stuff funded by other industries only peripherally related to cancer research. It's in entrepreneurial research industries. We need a much better bang for the buck. The hope for cancer victims is in changing the way we do our research."

While Cannon's staff has worked through his absence — three of Cannon's bills passed during the session while he remained in Utah — he is grateful to his Democratic opponent Beau Babka "for his gracious attitude."

"Beau Babka has said he understands, and he's not pressured us for debates," Cannon said. "We'll do debates later this month, but you can be obnoxious about that, demanding debates when I'm in session or . . . ," he paused, tellingly, "things. I've found my opponent is a very nice, thoughtful, kind person."

Controversy, ambition

As it has turned out this time, Cannon has had nothing to lose by keeping a low profile this election as he enjoys a 28-point lead over Babka, according to the latest Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll.

The campaign, including his defeat of challenger Matt Throckmorton in the Republican primary, has not been without glitches or controversy.

National border-control groups have attacked Cannon repeatedly for sponsoring legislation that would allow illegal immigrants working in the U.S. agricultural industry to earn legal status. He has been painted by some of these groups as a RINO — Republican in name only — for his stance, but he said it grew out of compassion for Latin American people he served as a missionary in Guatemala for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

His wife Claudia also spent time in Mexico, where her father had a business.

The immigration reform battle, which includes attacks on Cannon by CNN's Lou Dobbs and support for him by the Wall Street Journal, peaked when Cannon and an aide were guests on a Salt Lake City radio program.

Critics later produced a partial tape of the show that indicated the aide called for undocumented immigrants to register to vote, which is illegal. Cannon said he clarified the statement during what he said were key parts of the show but that weren't taped.

A lawsuit filed in 2002, timed to damage Cannon's successful election bid that fall, resurfaced again a couple of weeks ago as Cannon agreed to mediation.

Two former employees of CFour and ICS sued Cannon for more than $100,000 in allegedly unpaid wages. Cannon did provide $1 million in seed money to the defunct companies but maintains he never was more than an investor or client.

"We allege those companies are alter egos of Chris Cannon," attorney Mark McCarty told the Deseret Morning News before the decision to accept mediation. "We'll show he really was CFour and really was ICS and he owes these guys the money."

The controversies, Cannon said, are the price of running campaigns and doing business as a millionaire congressman and businessman.

"The only way you don't have opposition is if you're not doing anything," he said. "We're doing a lot of stuff. I'm not unhappy at all with the way the campaign has gone on. It's been very grass roots."

Cannon has been very ambitious, first as a venture capitalist and now as a politician. His physical and intellectual energy is striking. While his net worth has fallen dramatically since he first was elected in 1996, he remains a millionaire, now with powerful national friends, like the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

Sensenbrenner came to Utah this summer to help Cannon raise money for his campaign.

Clearly, Cannon's appetite for Congress hasn't waned, although his eight children miss him while he's in Washington and his wife Claudia says family time is often spent together campaigning. Still, he wants a fifth term in Congress and appears prepared to seek additional terms if voters cooperate.

"When my influence stops rising, when I'm not able to do more, I'll leave," he said.

Mended rift

While they were close as a teenagers and now, Joe and Chris weren't on talking terms for a few years after they put together a group to buy Geneva Steel. Members of the management team opposed several of the projects Chris Cannon proposed and ultimately wedged between the brothers, who developed different philosophies on the project.

The fallout sent tendrils of pain through their families.

Instead of taking the mill into high-tech manufacturing, Chris Cannon left the company, spinning off some of the business. And, eventually, Geneva Steel went bankrupt.

Cannon still believes the mill could have been successful with some of his ideas. "It would have been transformative to the steel industry," he said. "Utah would be a mecca for people who had mechanical ideas they wanted to try."

He's careful to be gracious, however.

"I didn't have the burden of making the decisions he did," he says of his older brother. " I'm not sure I could have done as perfectly as I get to say now."

The Cannon brothers now talk two or more times a week, old arguments dissolved in the wake the death of their father and a sister, as well as mutual support shown during each other's campaigns. (Joe Cannon lost to Sen. Bob Bennett in a Republican primary in 1992.)

"I think people who remember the bad times are surprised by that," Joe Cannon said.

The past month has added new meaning to the rapprochement, a fitting ending to the adventure of their youth.

With their dad and younger brother, they rode their bikes from Los Angeles to New York for the World's Fair. When it was over, Chris and Joe set out together to thumb rides back to California.

The two young hitchhikers were picked up in southern Illinois by three men who had just enough room for them amid the beer piled high in the back seat.

The strange trio lavished free meals on the boys as if money were no object. The men also took turns driving — and drinking. Over and over, whoever was driving would approach 90 mph, only to be slapped by the other two and told to slow down.

They exercised even more caution when they pulled into Cedar City, creeping through town, but the out-of-state plates drew the attention of a police officer, who turned to follow them and finally pulled them over.

When a police officer let the Cannons go the next day, he handed the boys bus tickets to L.A. and told them they were lucky — the men they'd hitched a ride with had held up a gas station a few days earlier in Milwaukee, where they also murdered the station attendant.

Forty years later, Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, still relishes the harrowing tale. When he retold it with a flourish on a recent Saturday morning at the IHOP in Springville, people looked up from their pancakes to see why their congressman was raising his voice and slapping his hands on the table.


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com