WASHINGTON — There were few cars out as John Curtis sped toward Salt Lake City in his gray pickup. It was early morning, hours after he’d won the Republican primary to succeed one of Congress’ most recognizable figures, and Curtis had flipped his phone facedown.
Its screen, lighting with every celebratory text, had been a distraction. But from the passenger seat, Curtis’ campaign manager told him there was one message he needed to see right away: The president of the United States had tweeted about Curtis.
Curtis didn’t vote for Donald Trump, and at 57, he wasn’t a big fan of Twitter, either. You couldn’t express nuance in 140 characters, he thought. Unlike Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Curtis didn’t have a bottomless supply of bite-sized, spicy takes.
As Provo’s mayor, he preferred blog posts. Half-hour video streams. Sitdown meetings. Takes did him no good. When he parroted the party line expected by the GOP base — long skeptical of Curtis’ past as a Democrat — he risked alienating the more moderate voters who urged him to run in the first place. When he didn’t reassure the base, he risked losing them. There was risk in everything, not least these two words that now lingered on 36 million-plus timelines, awaiting his response.
His campaign manager, an out-of-state Republican strategist, thumbed out a text to the communications staffer who ran Curtis’ Twitter account, a Provo Democrat named Courtney Kendrick. She needed to log in and retweet Trump, he told her.
“No,” she wrote back. “This is not the time.”
“This is coming from John,” he said.
“I don’t care who it’s coming from,” Kendrick said. “I’m not retweeting the president right now.”
Days earlier, Trump had blamed “many sides” after a growing sentiment of white nationalism had exploded in violence at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Kendrick felt she understood the shifting sensibilities in Utah, where many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (who tend to vote Republican) were repelled by Trump’s brash and vulgar rhetoric.
Trump had taken Utah, but with the lowest vote for a Republican in a quarter century. Utah leaders and prominent Mormons were among the first within the GOP to denounce Trump’s comments on the “Access Hollywood” recording, and more recently, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox had earned raves for a tweet condemning Trump’s Charlottesville characterization. Later that week, Mitt Romney would write that Trump had “caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn.”
@CurtisUT stayed silent for now. In a meeting later that day at the Provo Marriott, Kendrick, who described the exchange above to the Deseret News, said Curtis' double-digit primary margin proved his appeal to moderate voters. They didn’t need Trump, she argued, in a discussion that would become emblematic of the central conflict in Curtis’ campaign.
“Yeah, I don’t even think we have to ‘like’ (the tweet),” said one senior adviser. “Let’s just pretend it never happened.”
So the president’s congratulations — sandwiched between his newsmaking tweets about Amazon and North Korea — was ignored by a nationally obscure Republican congressional candidate, a candidate who knew that he might face a challenge from the right in 2018 and might’ve used Trump’s support to burnish his conservative credentials.
Curtis has emphasized his desire for bipartisanship as a new congressman. His vote for the GOP’s tax bill came only after he read all 400-plus pages, he told the editorial boards of the Deseret News and KSL last week, and when asked if he might break with his party by favoring some net neutrality rules, he wavered before allowing that the short answer was “Yes.”
But Curtis has agonized to find his voice in the binary world of national politics — where conditional language often dies on the cutting-room floor — and as a representative of a state that has complicated feelings about the president. Curtis even faced a backlash within his own camp during the general election after he said he would support the Trump agenda (when it suited the voters of his district), he would build the wall (if it proved the best way to protect America’s borders), and he would drain the swamp (to the extent that Trump agrees with his definition of “draining the swamp”).
Practically everything to everyone as Provo’s popular mayor, Curtis has lost supporters and a trusted adviser — the one who urged him not to retweet Trump. He has been reduced to tears.
He’d known when he announced his candidacy that he could never please everyone, but he found it difficult to please anyone.
And Curtis might’ve been most troubled of all.
It’s Nov. 9, two days since the general election, and John Curtis is enveloped by media staffers as he sits behind the generic L-shaped desk he borrowed from his deputy mayor after his own desk, bought at his expense, was moved out.
Curtis’ graying hair, full when he became mayor, is shorn to a short fuzz that accentuates his jug ears, and he cuts a fit figure. A protein shake fanatic who works out six days a week, he wears a step counter on his left wrist.
He appears restless this morning. As staff adjust a tripod for a Facebook live video stream, Curtis fidgets. Ever since the week leading up to the election, he’s been waking up at 3 a.m. “The mind just goes ‘fwwhp’” — he whistles — “and it won’t go back to sleep.” During past bouts of sleeplessness, Curtis has gotten out of bed and begun the day’s business. Lately, desperate to catch up on rest, he’s tossed and turned for hours.
Today marks the final mayoral installment of “Ask me anything,” a Facebook video series in which he answers viewers’ questions about a range of topics, and he has invited a Deseret News reporter to observe the production. The live video is just minutes away when his phone is rushed to him by one of the staffers, and he springs to his feet.
“Oh, speaker, I am so sorry!” Curtis says, pacing. “Oh, my goodness, I feel so bad.” He has already missed two congratulatory phone calls from House Speaker Paul Ryan, and worried that Ryan would call during the video stream. “I want you to know, though, this morning I showered with the door open and the cellphone on the floor of the bathroom,” he tells Ryan with a gravelly laugh. After a pause: “OK, and I promise to be more accessible in the future. Thanks, Mr. Speaker. All right, thanks, OK, buh-bye.”
Curtis exhales, relieved: “Can you imagine if the speaker had called (after) we started this?”
Curtis enters national politics amid a battle over the identity of the Republican Party — tugged this way and that in recent years between mainstreamers, ideologues and populists — and as approval for Trump and congressional leaders plummets to new lows. He also follows Chaffetz, who vaulted to national prominence as the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, then resigned to become a Fox News pundit amid uproar in the 3rd District and beyond.
It’s unlikely Curtis will replicate the 94 percent approval rating he boasted as a mayor, forced now to choose sides on more divisive issues than potholes and parks. As a Utahn and a Mormon, he’ll be expected to watchdog morality on both sides of the aisle. As a Republican, he’ll be asked to unwaveringly support the party’s agenda. And as a former mayor who had a broad, bipartisan appeal, he’ll be asked to go his own way.
But after Ryan’s call, the ask-and-answer session with Facebook followers affords him 30 minutes back in his comfort zone. No longer campaigning. Not yet a congressman. Safe. His eyes twinkle and his laugh lines crease as he refuses to name his preferred soft drink. He has correctly guessed that he will be asked about his famously zany sock collection, and as he removes his shoe and props his left foot up on the desk, he says he has worn a favorite pair: black socks with white giraffe-pattern strips.
Exit-polled in emojis, he fares well: 89 likes, 14 hearts, one vague teardrop — perhaps the sweet sorrow of parting — and just one viewer driven beet-red with fury.
Conservative and chill
The first time John Curtis was accused of being a Democrat, it’s because he was one. Sort of.
Curtis had recently moved to Provo from Virginia when he decided to run for state Senate in 2000, having bought a stake in a local shooting-range manufacturer co-founded by a cousin. He’d met his wife, Sue, when he was class president at Salt Lake City’s Skyline High School and married into a political family that included her siblings Dan Snarr (longtime Murray mayor) and Trisha Beck (a former state representative). Curtis spent 15 years in sales after graduating from Brigham Young University, working in Utah, Taiwan, Virginia and California. He was also active in the LDS Church, previously serving as a bishop, and was a father to six children.
Now the onetime watch salesman went door to door with a strange new pitch: He had switched parties and registered as a Democrat, he told people, so he could counter the “one-party dominance” that allowed Utah Republicans to make decisions behind closed doors. He was still against abortion, free rides and big government. One of his campaign website FAQs read: “You sound just like a Republican, why are you running as a Democrat?”
His 2000 opponent, Republican state Sen. Curt Bramble, recalled that in their first debate, Curtis introduced himself as a “Utah Democrat.” Bramble followed by saying that Curtis would be a foot soldier for the party of Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore. Curtis’ Republican family sat in the first few rows at Provo’s Centennial Middle School, and Bramble said he doesn’t believe Curtis’ mother ever forgave him for likening her son to Al Gore.
“It’s the only public speaking where I’ve ever been accused of taking a cheap shot at an opponent, and apparently, in Utah County, taking a cheap shot was calling a Democrat a Democrat,” he said, chuckling.
Curtis served a year as the county’s Democratic Party chairman from 2002 to 2003 but says he got the job because there were no other volunteers — “I was never really active, didn’t recruit candidates and things like that.” He didn’t re-register as a Republican until 2006, when he bid to replace state Rep. Jeff Alexander in a special election.
He would be dogged for the next decade by the accusation that he had been a real Democrat and was now a fake Republican, while he pleaded the opposite. In early 2007, after Curtis edged Chris Herrod by one delegate but fell short of the required 60 percent threshold, party leadership chose the unquestionably conservative Herrod to fill Alexander’s seat. Then, during a 2009 Provo mayoral election that was nonpartisan, Curtis’ leading opponent, state Rep. Steve Clark, sent a mailer with Ronald Reagan on one side next to the quote, “Facts are stubborn things.” The other side detailed Curtis’ political history as a Democrat.
After Curtis won that election by fewer than 600 votes, he could finally build a record of conservative action, which he soon did by reducing the city’s budget and eliminating a deficit. But he would ultimately be pushed to run for Congress not because of his frugality, but because he cultivated a brand as an open-door mayor who would consider the viewpoints of all Provoans, no matter how powerless or disenfranchised. Even if they were Democrats.
Curtis is a self-professed introvert who sometimes visits restrooms to escape large groups for a few minutes. He says he dreads wedding receptions and relishes the time he spends alone in his office, answering emails. Few would guess it, though. Even those who clashed bitterly with Curtis say he proved himself an expert interpersonal communicator. To meet with him was to risk feeling — true or not — that he liked you.
Curtis made headlines by reading to elementary schoolers in “Cat in the Hat” pajamas and, in an effort to dispel a survey that found Provo to be the nation’s least-fun city, celebrating his 50th birthday in 2010 by snow skiing, water skiing, ice skating, trail running and motorcycle riding all in the same day. By the end of his tenure, surveys had highlighted Provo’s national standing among startup hubs and fastest-growing, best-run cities — second in work-life balance and first in happiness.
Improbably, Provo gained a new, hip vibe through a spruced-up downtown, the rise of bands like Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees, and attractions like J Dawgs, Sodalicious and the Velour Live Music Gallery.
A casually clad Curtis became a regular sight at the Rooftop Concert Series, and Curtis’ office sparked a local craze with Rooftop-themed “Provo Rocks” T-shirts that depicted anthropomorphic hipster animals. He blogged prolifically on issues big (“No One Deserves Discrimination”) and small (“Why Does the Flag at the Golf Course Look Worn Out?”). And those colorful socks, visible below his stylishly tapered dress pants and admittedly as much a gimmick as a reflection of his true personality, became a favorite icebreaker with Provo residents. Mentions of his growing collection became de rigueur for Curtis profilers. The socks always killed.
As soon as Curtis said he wouldn’t seek a third term as mayor, months before Chaffetz announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election, supporters began prodding Curtis to pursue the 3rd District seat — as a Republican, Democrat, anything.
On the beach
Chaffetz’s office, due to its occupant, had become one of the most widely scrutinized in Washington.
After saying he couldn’t look his daughter in the eye if he endorsed Trump, Chaffetz had infuriated never-Trumpers by announcing he would vote for Trump anyway. When House Republicans later unveiled a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, Chaffetz struck many as uncaring when he said Americans would have to choose between health care and “that new iPhone that they just love.” And when he wouldn’t investigate Trump’s alleged conflicts of interest with the same zeal he had applied to Hillary Clinton’s email use, Utahns had piled into a Cottonwood Heights town hall and admonished him to “Do your job!” as he grinned back.
Chaffetz received 79 percent of the 3rd District’s vote in 2016 and likely would have won a sixth term, had he run. But he was a polarizing figure, even among Republicans, at a time when polarization seemed to be what ailed Washington, D.C. Some began to see an antidote in Curtis.
Tech entrepreneur Owen Fuller launched a crowdfunding page to spur Curtis to mount a 2018 primary challenge against Chaffetz, but Curtis wasn’t having it. In early April, he wrote to Fuller: “I feel that it’s important that you know my feelings have solidified and I can tell you with confidence that my willingness to run is somewhere between 0% and .000001%.”
He apologized to Chaffetz about Fuller’s effort when Chaffetz called later that month. Chaffetz told him to relax; he was giving Curtis a heads-up: He had decided not to run again. A month later, Chaffetz announced he would resign midterm. The youngest of Curtis’ six children, Nicole, reminded her dad of the advice he had given her when she was weighing a run for student body president at Timpview High: “If I didn’t, I would always wonder, ‘What if?’” said Nicole, who won and is now a freshman at BYU.
Curtis said his course selected itself very abruptly one Sunday, when a feeling hit him “stronger than any feeling that I’ve had before.” He filed on the next-to-last day, doing so as his LinkedIn profile still advertised his services as a corporate executive and resumes lay scattered about his home office.
After being eliminated by delegates on the fourth ballot at the GOP convention, Curtis turned in more than twice the signatures required to get on the ballot, and his recognition in and around Utah’s third-largest city made him an instant front-runner in the primary against convention champ Herrod and fellow signature-gatherer Tanner Ainge. And an instant target.
Super PACs for limited government or backing Ainge poured $1 million into the primary, more than twice Curtis’ own bank, and spent much of it on media that associated Curtis with so-called “tax-and-spend liberals” like Pelosi. One mailer showed a Photoshopped Curtis pointing to a money bag under the words “HIGHER TAXES.” Another said Curtis had confessed to being a “FLAMING LIBERAL,” pulling the quote from a little-watched YouTube video from April in which Curtis had said the words facetiously and added “and I’m joking.”
One ad had called Curtis “slick,” what with his “carefully untucked shirt.” Curtis recalled that several weeks before the primary, he found three anti-Curtis mailers waiting for him in his mailbox. “It’s all you can do to get the money together to send out one (ad) in response,” he said. His wife, Sue, shut out all media, covering her ears whenever a car radio came on. They felt under siege.
Deciding that he needed somebody with experience in federal races, Curtis hired Poolhouse, a relatively new Virginia-based political ad agency that an associate learned about at Romney’s annual Park City summit. It was a coup for Poolhouse: The small firm now led a front-running congressional campaign in one of only six off-year House races. But in Curtis, they found a candidate in desperate need of talking points beyond his mayoral accomplishments and his ... socks.
“This is their thing,” said Will Ritter, who was director of advance for Romney in 2012 before co-founding Poolhouse with another 30-something Romney staffer in 2013. “I was like, ‘Hey, in a Republican primary, we’re going to have to do a little more than funny socks. And I’ll poll it, if you want to.’”
So Ritter’s team drafted messaging that would counter the narrative about Curtis — three “red blood positives.” First, Curtis was a Washington outsider who wanted the federal government to keep its hands off Utah’s land. Second, he supported gun rights. And third, they filmed Curtis riding his black cruiser motorcycle and firing a handgun.
Still, Curtis refused to hit back at Herrod and Ainge, even as Ritter told him that a nighttime TV viewer was seeing three messages portraying Curtis as a closet socialist for each one that said he was a successful conservative mayor. Instead, Curtis responded with a tongue-in-cheek ad — cute but not cutting — in which he repurposed anti-Curtis mailers as garden mulch, floor mats and range targets.
“He wanted to win or lose with his head high,” Ritter said. “And so, he’s the boss. To have unanswered attacks is anathema to me. Usually doesn’t work.”
Data reinforced Ritter’s warnings. UtahPolicy.com polls showed Herrod and Ainge gaining on Curtis, with nearly all previously undecided voters going for Curtis’ opponents. Days before the Aug. 15 primary, as mailers rained down on the 3rd District, Curtis had just an 8-point lead with 26 percent of voters yet to choose.
Curtis escaped for a couple days with family on a preplanned trip to Newport Beach, but he said he felt like he ceded more ground to Herrod, Ainge and the deep-pocketed super PACs with every moment that he spent away from the campaign. He wasn't sleeping. Curtis is known for boundless energy during his time with loved ones, but family members recall that he sat on a beach chair and quietly stared out at the Pacific, lost in thought.
As it turned out, Curtis won the primary by double digits — a victory that tasted sweeter for the bitterness that had preceded it. “You wasted your money!” he shouted triumphantly, addressing the super PACs during his victory speech. He was now a shoo-in to win the 3rd District. And yet Curtis’ lowest moments were ahead.
Curtis had owed his widespread appeal in part to a policy, as mayor, of avoiding discussions of national politics that he regarded as needlessly divisive. When he was assailed from the right during the primary, that earned him sympathy from moderates and Democrats who felt that any decent candidate ought to be assailed from the right.
But Curtis says he wasn’t prepared for the partisan nature of the general election, where he was framed by opponents as a tacit Trump ally and a GOP party-liner whenever he exposed his political beliefs — even if those beliefs hadn’t changed since the primary, or even since his 2000 state Senate bid. As the resulting headlines cost him friends, tensions also suddenly flared within his own inner circle.
Days before the victorious primary, at 4 a.m., Curtis wrote to Kendrick, the deputy campaign manager, that “there is no one who has influenced me as a mayor and a candidate more than you.” A popular blogger under the name “C. Jane” and co-founder of the Rooftop Concert Series, Kendrick is the daughter of Curtis’ 2009 mayoral opponent Steve Clark and a not-so-secret Democrat, but she considered herself a guardian of Curtis’ inclusive, relatable brand.
It was Kendrick who said she pushed back when told to retweet Trump after the primary victory, Kendrick whose idea it was to begin the “Ask me anything” Facebook videos after she began working for Curtis as a part-time media specialist in 2015, and Kendrick who suggested Curtis go on a late-September RV tour.
The three-day trip introduced the soon-to-be congressman to voters in the rural parts of his sprawling district, which stretches from Salt Lake County to the southeastern reaches of the state. He had prepared by calling a Chaffetz outreach staffer for a crash course in country. From a Western wear dealer, he’d texted the staffer photos of himself in various combinations of jeans and boots, seeking advice. They were careful that his jeans were overlong enough that they bunched atop his boots, in the style of a cowboy who requires the extra length in the saddle. He came off well on the trip.
But Kendrick, 40, had grown frustrated with Poolhouse, which she felt had pushed Curtis to mimic Trump’s rhetoric (Poolhouse’s early messaging had read: “The plain truth is Trump is getting things done in Washington”). She didn’t understand why Curtis wasn’t distancing himself from Trump now that they had survived the primary, and it was no longer necessary to convince the GOP base of his red-bloodedness. She said she also felt that some of the conduct of those on the campaign trail was inappropriate, and she reached a breaking point on the RV tour, after she says a contract worker made inappropriate remarks. Prior to the RV trip, another male staffer had told Kendrick’s assistant as she bent to blow up an inflatable chair, “I have some single friends that I would love to introduce you to.”
When Kendrick shared a chaser car with Curtis and two senior campaign staffers on the way back to Provo from Castle Dale, she told them she would no longer work with people who behaved like that. Kendrick said Curtis became upset while she tried to keep her cool. Curtis said Kendrick was speaking in a "harsh tone" and that he tried to de-escalate the conversation.
Kendrick was soon dismissed from the campaign, as was the male staffer she accused of the “single friends” comment. And so Curtis lost a loyal member of his inner circle, an outspoken progressive whose pushback he had welcomed as mayor, and who embodied his unusual bond with many moderate and left-leaning voters.
Meanwhile, while Curtis was on the RV tour, a campaign vendor had posted a Curtis-branded Facebook ad: “No more broken promises. It’s time to end illegal immigration once and for all. BUILD THE WALL.”
Elsewhere, that might be expected language from a Republican candidate, but it rates as a bold statement in Utah, where conservative members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often hold more nuanced immigration views. It was also the sort of black-and-white position that Curtis’ early supporters had wanted to leave behind when they first encouraged him to run. To Allison Lew, who worked for Curtis’ economic development department and had recorded a testimonial, it felt like a “betrayal.”
“Like, I opened up my mind to accept you, and you’ve given me hope that someone in a position of power and influence in Utah would listen, but now with that one ad, you’re unraveling all of that,” said Lew, whose mother is a refugee from the Vietnam War and spent 20 years waiting for citizenship.
She asked Curtis not to air her testimonial. Another former Provo employee removed her two Curtis yard signs. A photographer who shot Curtis’ portraits and changed parties to vote for him in the primary now emailed to say he would no longer shoot for the campaign. The designer of Curtis’ T-shirts said on Instagram that he could not support Curtis because of his “racist and classist immigration and tax reform policies.”
Curtis pulled the ad — which he said he never saw prior to it posting and was approved by a campaign staffer — along with another calling for an end to sanctuary cities. He wrote in an op-ed: “Let there be no doubt, although I strongly support securing our borders, I do not believe a wall can be our only response to our nation’s immigration problems.”
He invited a dozen concerned supporters to his house, where he heard them out and explained himself. But he stopped reading social media, now seeing friends among his critics.
He had found it straightforward to answer the allegations that he was a tax-loving liberal: He wasn’t. Those who felt the ads were “dog whistle” appeals to Trump supporters now seemed to want Curtis to explicitly disavow Trump. When Curtis explained that he generally agreed with the president’s legislative priorities — if not the content of Trump’s early morning tweets — opponents pounced on further proof that Curtis was Trump’s man. One voter told Curtis he offended her by saying in Chinese, when asked to demonstrate the command of the language he gained serving an LDS mission to Taiwan, “make America great again.” Curtis had thought it was a funny thing to say.
Even the feedback from his own team started to wear on him as he tried to feel out his place in discussions of partisan politics. His tone wasn’t right, they would repeatedly tell him, no matter what his tone had been: “They’d just keep — it was like, every sentence, everything that I was saying had to be rethought. … They’d say, ‘No, you didn’t hit it.’ And I’d say, ‘No, but that was me. I don’t care if I hit it, it was me,’” Curtis said.
Curtis said his campaign manager, Danny Laub, sometimes worried that he was afraid to say anything controversial, to which Curtis said, “You don’t understand: It’s that I’m not sure I’m right.” He added: “I’d be happy to stand up and say, ‘No, that is my position on the wall, I don’t care how many people I make mad,’ if it had been.”
Curtis said he believes he finally found his voice in his election night speech at the Provo Marriott, when he issued 10 pledges that returned to themes of his mayorship: he would be inclusive, open minded, unbeholden and so forth. He had read it to applause in rehearsal, but he had to implore his victory crowd at one point to respond more enthusiastically to the beats. Laub joked to reporters afterward that they were obligated to include at least one pledge in their stories for every mention of Trump. Most reports mentioned two or three of Curtis’ pledges and twice as many mentions of Trump.
Kendrick — who now works for new Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi — says she never got an explanation for her dismissal, though Curtis says it’s because she seemed to give him an ultimatum about those on the campaign.
Another woman who worked for the campaign and requested anonymity to protect her employability said others in the campaign office thought Kendrick had been fired for reporting inappropriate behavior by some on the campaign. That explanation, which comes as multiple members of Congress stand accused of sexual misconduct, is untrue, Curtis said, adding that he considered it a “weighty accusation.” There was never an accusation against Curtis.
If he was “grumpy,” Curtis said, it was because Kendrick hadn’t reported the male staffer’s behavior sooner. He added that Kendrick was invited to submit a resume to join his congressional staff and never did.
The day before Curtis left for Washington, D.C., after the "Ask me anything" in which he'd flashed his giraffe-print socks, he nonetheless met with Kendrick for the first time in weeks. He cried (not for the first time that day) and thanked her, Kendrick said, and told her that he was in the "deepest level of hell." He might be depressed.
Curtis said that if he told Kendrick he was depressed, or in hell, he must have been referring to how he’d felt during the campaign. Since becoming congressman, he says, he has felt “healthier.”
Finding his place
On day two as a congressman, between votes, Curtis sits behind his new desk, backlit by his window into the Rayburn House Office Building courtyard as he leans over a 3-inch thick manual on House rules.
The second-floor office — where Chaffetz famously slept on a cot — is only Curtis’ until the end of his abbreviated term. If re-elected, he’ll be entered into a lottery for spaces unwanted by more senior members, likely in the Cannon or Longworth buildings. When it comes to a home, he and his wife, Sue, have crammed into a five-bedroom Airbnb with their six adult children, their four spouses and three grandchildren, and Curtis will close on a nearby house later that week.
His orientation has been breakneck. Between brisk walks through the Capitol’s underground tunnels to meet leadership and tour House chambers, Curtis has been greeted by staffers tugging his sleeve to sign software contracts or select business card designs. (“That one, there,” he says gruffly to end a debate between white and cream.)
Granted a few minutes to reflect, he confesses that it has sometimes been hard to tell which of his well-wishers are fellow members of Congress — they don’t all wear their congressional pins, you see.
“A lot of them look exactly like the last person who came up to talk to me,” he says. He feels like he’s transferred to a new school where “the lunch groups are already set,” and he’s relieved that he didn’t bungle his introductory speech on the House floor.
Those close to Curtis say voters are likely to be disappointed if they expect him to make waves watchdogging the party’s morality in the vein of other Mormon politicians, like outgoing Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who owns a house in Curtis’ Provo ward, or Romney, said to be contemplating a run for Sen. Orrin Hatch’s seat and a Curtis endorser.
Of Flake’s criticisms — and whether he would do the same — Curtis said, “I don’t think that works if you’re at the beginning of your career and you need to work with the administration. … I can’t put myself in a position that makes me totally ineffective.”
Chaffetz said he believes Curtis will naturally want to help build a consensus — the quality that compelled Fuller and others to push Curtis toward Congress — “but he’s going to quickly find out that it’s hand-to-hand combat in Congress.”
“It’s very collegial in that you can smile and hang out together, but when the cameras and the lights are on, it’s a very combative place,” Chaffetz said. “It’ll be interesting to see how he reacts to that. I think he’ll do fine, but it’s not as simple as trying to cajole the Provo City Council that he’s going in the right direction.”
Curtis told editorial boards last week, as he prepared to ramp up his re-election bid, that he might spend up to half his time championing the needs of rural Utahns. His first bill in Congress was to extend fish recovery programs in the Upper Colorado and San Juan rivers, and he has since released another — with the help of the delegation — to establish protections within the former Bears Ears National Monument.
A careful observer might have noted that Curtis was nonetheless the only member of Utah’s delegation who didn’t pose next to Donald Trump in the state Capitol in early December, when the president held aloft a proclamation reducing the boundaries of two Utah national monument designations — including Bears Ears — that had long been criticized by the state’s Republicans.
Curtis wasn't absent in protest. He was at the Capitol, on the stage, and he looked forward to shaking Trump’s hand. But before he and other members of the delegation were invited to take their marks near Trump, Curtis was jostled out of position by an elected state official in a way that made him feel “uncomfortable,” and he ceded his spot.
So Curtis squeezed in at the rear of the stage while Trump changed the course of his district’s history, signed a county commissioner’s hat and glad handed with other Utahns. Curtis finally entered the frame toward the end of the broadcast, smiling widely as the president inched within an arm’s length and then turned, along with the cameras, toward the exit.
His hesitation had again positioned him somewhat apart from the president: not quite Trump’s man, and not quite not Trump’s man — something more complicated than what can be contained in a photo, or a Facebook post, or a retweet.
Something, perhaps, which he has yet to entirely understand himself.
This story has been edited to accurately reflect Kendrick's account of Curtis' reaction to her comments on the car trip from Provo to Castle Dale, as well as the identity of the staffer who received Curtis' text messages from a western wear dealer.