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High-stress job detailed

Huntsman aide steps down with no regrets

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. visits with chief of staff Jason Chaffetz in Chaffetz's office the day before the aide stepped down.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. visits with chief of staff Jason Chaffetz in Chaffetz's office the day before the aide stepped down.
Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

The desk of arguably the second-most powerful member of the executive branch of state government is now empty, except for a note and three bottles of medicine — antacids, aspirin and another painkiller.

"I will leave you with the three most important things you will need," says the note penned by the governor's outgoing chief of staff, Jason Chaffetz, to his successor and former deputy, Neal Ashdown.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., whose private office is next door to the chief of staff's, laughed when he saw the display. Chaffetz, who ran the first-time politician's campaign, is the "most gifted political strategist I have ever encountered," the governor declared.

Huntsman praised Chaffetz for making the transition from running his campaign to running his staff. "He combined campaign leadership with executive branch management that is unprecedented," the governor said.

There have been complaints since Huntsman took office in January that Chaffetz — who is only 38 — and other key members of the governor's staff didn't have enough experience in state government. Chaffetz also was sometimes seen as too protective of the governor.

Adding to the friction was Chaffetz's role in firing more than 30 employees of what was then the state Department of Community and Economic Development to put the governor in charge of selling the state.

Chaffetz, whose last day was Friday, said he had no regrets about how he did his job. He announced last month that he was planning to return to the private sector, a decision supported by the governor.

He's reviving a partnership with his brother in a marketing firm, Maxtera, that will handle political accounts in Colorado as well as other clients. But not in Utah, at least not for another year, out of respect for the governor's effort to establish a cooling-off period for state officials.

Chaffetz said he was approached to lobby the Utah Legislature on behalf of some interests he declined to name. He also interviewed for the top communications job with the Utah Jazz, as well as several other organizations.

When Chaffetz joined the Huntsman campaign in mid-2003, he was an executive with NuSkin. Earlier this year, he toyed with the idea of running for office himself as a Republican challenger to Democratic 2nd District Congressman Jim Matheson.

In the end, though, he said he was ready to work for himself after his stint in government. "I have such an entrepreneurial spirit and I am a self-starter. I don't need a structure," he said. "I like being able to grapple with a project and make it happen. Campaigning is like that."

But not the day-to-day business of government. On the campaign trail, "you deal with the crisis of the day, as opposed to the same thing, day in and day out." As chief of staff, he said there were days when "my eyes glazed over."

Much of what he considers the highlights of his time with Huntsman center around the campaign, especially the early days. "Looking back, it seems so obvious that Jon Huntsman was going to get the (GOP) nomination," Chaffetz said. "But back then it wasn't."

Taking office transformed Huntsman, he said. "I think he actually became much more comfortable. He's much more comfortable as the governor than he was as a candidate. It's just much more natural for him."

Chaffetz said he was surprised at what the job of chief of staff actually entailed. "I think intellectually, I understood the scope of the position," he said. "I did not realize the detail to which the governor personally got involved in such a wide array of issues. Wow."

Coming from the business world, both the governor and his chief of staff had to learn they couldn't accomplish everything they wanted. "I was probably a bit more naive on that," Chaffetz said, noting Huntsman is a former ambassador and U.S. trade representative.

Still, he's proud of much that's been done, including how the administration handled the flooding in southern Utah and persuaded lawmakers to enact a ban on higher-level nuclear waste.

And he even finds satisfaction with the controversial restructuring of the state's economic development efforts.

"You're never gleeful about having to release people. But it is something we campaigned on for a year. There was an expectation in the public's mind we were going to make some dramatic changes there," Chaffetz said. "It was difficult but necessary."

While he didn't relish playing the bad cop, Chaffetz said it had to be done. "There are just times you have to say, 'No. I'm sorry. We can't.' Oftentimes the chief of staff has to deliver that message. I don't take it personally. It's just a necessary part of the job."


E-mail: lisa@desnews.com