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First female House speaker in Utah history is tough on behalf of the people

Becky Lockhart was just weeks into her first session as a state Republican representative from Provo when she encountered her moment of truth. A male legislator from her own party got in her face.

During a break between meetings, he backed her into a corner, scolding and threatening her for not voting his way. He was angry; she was stunned. It was ugly enough that the confrontation drew the attention of others (who would later ask if she was all right).

So this was her test. He was trying to intimidate her into supporting his vote. What would she do? Lockhart was certainly vulnerable. She was new and young — barely 30 years old — and one of only a handful of females in a male domain. Could she be intimidated? Would the novice be eager to please and comply? Could she be her own woman in an arena that was so highly competitive and dominated by egos and testosterone?

After recovering from her shock, Lockhart gathered herself and fired back. "Who are you to tell me how to vote!?" she said. "I don't answer to you. I answer to my constituents."

She stood her ground and voted her own way. It was a defining moment.

"It really set me back," says Lockhart, sitting in her Capitol Hill office on a recent afternoon. "It wasn't polite. It was very pointed."

Lockhart has not only survived 13 years in the House since then, she has risen to the top. She is serving in her first session as speaker of the House — the first woman to hold the position in Utah. She won the job for the same reason that she refused to back down from that legislator years ago. She didn't want the powerful to dictate the agenda; she wanted a voice for constituents.

Ambitious and intense, Lockhart ran for leadership positions three times in the past decade — twice as assistant whip, once as majority whip — and lost each time before finally winning the assistant whip position. It was evident from the start that she had earned the respect of party leaders because after each loss they appointed her to leadership positions — twice as vice-chairwoman of appropriations, once as chairwoman for rules.

Last summer she decided to challenge incumbent Rep. Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, for the speakership because of what she called a concentration of power in the speaker's office. Proposed bills were being killed in that office before they even went to the rules committee, the first step of the process. The speaker — whether it was Clark, Greg Curtis, Marty Stephens or Mel Brown — had been limiting access to the political process by limiting what bills would be heard on the floor. Lockhart traveled throughout the state to make her sales pitch to other legislators — let the Legislature as a whole decide the merits of a bill, not the speaker, and then let the process work.

No one — including long-time lobbyist Doug Foxley and Mike Dmitrich, Utah's longest-serving politician with 40 years in the Legislature — can remember anyone defeating an incumbent for the speakership, but Lockhart somehow pulled it off. Clark himself expressed surprise after his defeat, claiming that he had had pledges of support from significantly more than 30 of the 58 members of the House GOP caucus. In a secret ballot, Lockhart won 30-28.

"My message resonated with my colleagues," says Lockhart. "They're ready for a different leadership style. This is not a personal issue with Dave. It's something that evolved in the House over time."

Lockhart literally leaves her office door open as much as possible throughout the day as a symbol that she and her office are accessible to everyone.

"It's a surprise victory to lots of people," says LaVarr Webb, an expert on Utah politics and a part-time Deseret News political columnist. "Clark had that locked up."

Says LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, "People were surprised that she was brave enough and assertive enough to run for speaker. They didn't think she could get the votes. ... She was a work in progress as she held these leadership positions. She saw the people ahead of her and saw good and bad examples, and now that she's there she has her own ideas."

Lockhart's rise to the top of Utah politics is a slice of Americana — a housewife and career woman who started her political career at the grassroots level and ascended to elected office and leadership while juggling her roles as a mother and nurse (and Relief Society president).

"We didn't plan on any of this happening," says Lockhart's husband of 23 years, Stan.

If Lockhart took a political science class during her studies at Brigham Young University, she can't remember it. She took a degree in nursing, married Stan and they had three children. She was a nurse working in labor and delivery. Stan was sales manager at a small software company.

Through a friend, they became involved in local politics, attending their first Republican caucus meeting in 1990, when she was 21. They did everything from putting away chairs at conventions to serving on every committee, and eventually they were elected as delegates. They got their first taste of the political process at work by successfully opposing the expansion of a jail near their neighborhood.

"We discovered through that process that the average citizen could make a difference," says Stan.

Lockhart told Stan that someday she wanted to run for the state Legislature. Then that opportunity presented itself — to Stan. In 1997, Byron Harward announced that he would resign his House seat and asked Stan to run as his replacement. Stan's employer, unwilling to free him for 45 days each year for the legislative sessions, said no. Stan went to work for Micron instead as government affairs manager with the understanding that he could run for office but was eventually told no again. Becky, who was supportive of Stan, but disappointed she hadn't received the call from Harward, decided she would replace her husband.

"It was a little premature frankly," says Stan. "In a perfect world, she would've waited till the kids were a little older, but when the opportunity presents itself. ..."

Becky garnered 80 percent of the delegate votes to replace Harward, but by law the names of the top three vote-getters were sent to the governor for the final decision. The governor chose Provo police chief Swen Nielsen. (Because of the uproar over the unfairness of this selection, the law was changed). Nielsen held the office for a year and chose not to run for re-election. In 1998, Lockhart, at the age of 29, was elected to the Legislature, replacing Nielsen.

"Becky was the right person for the job, not me," says Stan. "It was like the stars all lined up for her."

Sitting in her office on a recent afternoon, Lockhart was sneaking spoonfuls of instant oatmeal at her desk (later it would be a few handfuls of almonds picked out of a glass bowl during a press briefing). This is how she survives during the six weeks the Legislature is in session.

Since the Christmas holidays she has lived in a Salt Lake hotel to be near Capitol Hill, leaving Stan to watch over the household in Provo. It is a routine they have been practicing for a dozen years. When the kids were younger, Lockhart's parents moved in when she moved out.

Lockhart's day is a track meet. Rising at 4:45 a.m., she rides the exercise bike for an hour while reading newspapers and watching news on TV. By 7 she is in her office, and the rest of the day she is in and out of meetings when she isn't officiating business on the House floor. Then there are e-mails to answer and phone calls to return and maybe a dinner appointment. She's back to the hotel by 9.

"I'm exhausted by then," she says. "I take some papers to bed thinking I'm going to read them and next thing I know I'm out. It's mental exhaustion. There are all these bills and issues I have to understand about so many different things — education, then 30 seconds later it's tax policy or agriculture."

She sees Stan on weekends. During the week she usually calls him for a nightly visit, but sometimes she can't fit it in or falls asleep. Most of the time their calls last fewer than five minutes. They try to fit in a Friday night date, but she crashes as soon as they return home, then she's up early the next morning to attend some function, and in the afternoon she works on bills and makes calls to constituents.

"We all sacrifice and struggle just to get by," says Stan.

It's easier now that the kids are grown. Hannah, who just graduated from BYU with a degree in political science at the age of 20, is working for Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Lee in Washington. (She told her dad she wants to be like her mother). Emily, 18, is majoring in chemical engineering at the University of Utah. Stephen, 15, lives at home (the first time Lockhart was leaving the house for her first legislative session, Stephen, 2 at the time, had to be peeled off his mother's leg).

There have been other sacrifices. After working seven years as a nurse, Becky quit her job to make room for her political career, although she has kept her license active. "Something had to give," she says. It has cost them financially. They have lived in a modest 2,200-square foot home (counting the basement) for 20 years, and drive aging cars — 2005 and 2006 Dodge Stratuses with 225,000 miles between them and a 2001 Dodge Durango with 200,000 miles and a newly replaced engine.

"We have the tow truck service on speed dial," says Stan. "I think I've paid for the college education of my mechanic's children." Stan continues: "We sacrificed a bit financially so Becky can serve. She would be talented in the business arena, but chose to work at less than minimum wage in the Legislature because she loves it."

Their marriage revolves around political life. In 1999, a year after his wife went to the Legislature, Stan was elected chairman of the Utah County Republican Party and to the Provo City Council. From 2007-09 he served as chairman of the Utah Republican Party.

Politics pulled them together, although now it pulls them apart for nearly two months each year. In the early years of their marriage, they struggled to find mutual interests. She was a nurse, and he got queasy just at the mention of blood and medical procedures, which ended any discussion of her work at home. (He passed out while witnessing the birth of their first child). He was a salesman who came home wanting to talk about his job, but it put her to sleep.

"We were striving to find common ground," he recalls. "Once we got involved in politics, that changed. We could drive to Pocatello and talk about politics for hours."

But again, politics has also pulled them apart, as well. Stan is considered a lobbyist even though he is not employed as one per se. As government affairs manager for IM Flash, one of his responsibilities is to monitor legislation that might affect his company. "There's a misconception there because he is not a contract lobbyist who is hired by companies to make their case to the Legislature," says Lockhart.

Still, she has been careful to distance herself from her husband and any suspicion of influence. During the governor's State of the State address in the House chambers, it is a tradition that legislators' spouses sit next to them. Stan was absent, a fact made conspicuous because of the speaker's seat on the dais. Stan has also bypassed other perks that come to legislators' spouses, such as a parking spot on the Hill.

"We are very careful about that," says Lockhart. "I worry that it has hurt his feelings. But he understands. We talked about it. This is a line we don't want to cross. I stay away from his issues. I don't serve on committees where those issues would come up. I've declared all this on conflict-of-interest forms."

Says Stan, "She has drawn a line in the sand. She is representing her constituents. I am just one of those constituents, and I get the proportionate attention."

During her senior year of high school, Lockhart was voted Most Stubborn. Her class peers produced a graphic with her head on a donkey (although, in retrospect, an elephant might have been more fitting). "That's a reflection of my knowing what I believed, and I didn't take anything from anybody," she says.

Born in Reno, she moved frequently throughout her childhood following her father's work for the Forest Service, living in three different cities in Arizona, plus stops in New Mexico and Idaho. Family discussions often covered politics, and Becky was active in student government. She graduated from high school in Pocatello with honors and attended BYU, but focused on nursing, not politics. Notwithstanding, when Becky was elected to political office, her mother told her, "I always knew you'd do this someday."

Lockhart notes that she never had a lot of women friends in her youth and that hanging around with girls at the mall was never her style.

"I talked about sports and stuff like that," she says. "I learned about sports from my grandmother."

She liked to watch Dodger games and talk sports with her male cousins. Unlike most girls her age, she understood football and its rules. She still watches SportsCenter with her son and regularly attends or tunes in BYU ball games. The family attends Jazz games on the cheap — six hotdogs and six tickets in the Upper Bowl for $15 each. She likes to golf (Stan notes that she beat him the last time they played). She'd rather have tickets to a game than jewelry or flowers, and it's not even a close contest.

At home, she tutors the kids in their homework, but she doesn't cook except on Sunday; the family lives on cold cereal for breakfast and fast food for dinner — "We single-handedly keep McDonald's, Wendy's and Taco Bell in business," says Stan.

Maybe all of the above is why Lockhart never had much trouble fitting into the man's world of the state Legislature, where there are 104 men and 20 women. Over the years she experienced "some of that's man's world-type of thing, but not a lot," she says. In the early years, her youthfulness was more of a challenge than her gender.

"It's still something of an old boys' club, but not as much as it used to be," says Lorie Fowlke, whose six-year run as a legislator ended recently.

Not that it matters anyway, as far as Stan is concerned. "Becky can hold her own with anyone, anytime, anywhere," he says.

Lockhart is a strong personality who tends to take charge. This story has become part of Lockhart family lore: They were on a Lake Powell houseboat owned by Curt Bramble, a longtime friend and state Senator. One morning they were awakened by screaming — a large "mutant-size" mouse was loose on the boat. The women and children ran screaming from the room and fled to the safety of the roof. Becky stayed behind and cornered the mouse with a broom.

"She was with the guys!" says Suzy Bramble, Curt's wife.

Lockhart, attractive, brown-eyed and 42, can be tough and no-nonsense. She has a warm smile, but friends tell her she doesn't use it enough. Her own husband says, "She can give you that look — she can send out bolts of lightning that can fry you to a crisp on the spot. You know exactly where you stand with Becky. She's strong-willed and intense."

She comes off as aloof, restrained and self-contained, but she has a shy charm and warms to people. "She's very charming in a sincere way, not just a glad-hander," says Christensen.

"She's very intelligent and personable, and she's a problem-solver," says Suzy Bramble. "Her passion is her kids, and she's a great nurse — she was my nurse. She's still not a girl kind of person. She shops to buy what she needs. She doesn't spend a lot of time at it."

She spends her free time reading, which is also her homework. She usually has a stack of five or six books on her bedside table, many of them relating to history, the Founding Fathers and political theory. "I'm one of those strange people who gets a copy of the Supreme Court decisions and reads them," she says. "I'm halfway through the ruling on the unconstitutionality of Obamacare. I find it interesting to see the logic they use. I do think that if I went back to school for fun, I would study history or political science."

She has read the Federalist Papers, The Conservative Mind and the works of David McCullough, although she does make time for lighter fare, namely fantasy novels by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.

As her reading and record indicate, she's a conservative, if you're looking for labels.

"She's very principled and grounded in founding principles and morality," says Christensen. "She is not afraid of political correctness."

"Becky is a good combination of pragmatism and idealism," says Fowlke. "She's committed to and believes in the process. If people allow it to be used, the right things will happen."

"She's a conservative not because she listened to Sean Hannity," says Stan. "It's something down inside of her. She knows how to apply Constitutional principles. Look, all those conservative organizations — Utah Taxpayers Association and the NRA and so forth — she's at the top of their list. She doesn't seek them out. She just legislates, and because of the principled way she handles an issue she rises to the top of the conservative lists."

That makes her an easy target at times for the media, which is one of her biggest challenges. She is wary of reporters. That's one reason she appointed a former newspaper reporter, Joe Pyrah, to serve as the chief deputy of the House.

"I know I struggle with (the media)," she says. "We don't always agree on the issues. Early in my career I had some very bad experiences with the media. I'll just leave it at that. I'll just put it this way: I am more than happy to talk to the press. But I will never seek it."

Says Webb, "She knows the legislative process well and will be a good speaker, but I do think as a public figure she isn't very experienced at being in the limelight and that it is somewhat uncomfortable for her. Unlike (Congressman Jason) Chaffetz, she doesn't instinctively know how to deal with the media and get good press. She's sort of shy. ... She certainly isn't looking to make a big splash with the media in a career-building sense, and that's to her credit. Chaffetz wants his name out there and is ambitious. She's more concerned about keeping the budget passed and doing the things she has to do in this session."

Lockhart might not be putting her name out there, but it's out there anyway. She is a rising star with conservative groups. Frank Pignanelli, a political adviser and former state legislator who now co-writes a column with Webb for the Deseret News, has long referred to Lockhart as Utah's Iron Lady, the nickname for Margaret Thatcher, Britain's conservative former prime minister.

"Lockhart is no longer just a competent Utah County lawmaker," wrote Pignanelli, "she is now a potent symbol of conservatism in the Western United States. Long after she retires from the speakership, she will be on the shortlist for statewide and federal candidates."

That leads to the obvious question.

"I've never really considered higher office," says Lockhart. "What usually happens is that I see a need somewhere that I think I can do something about. That's why I ran for office in the first place and why I ran for speaker last year. I suppose if I see the need somewhere else, I'll consider that, too."