Opinion: Sen. Orrin Hatch left a lasting legacy as the longest-serving Republican senator
Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson shares the lessons he learned from watching Sen. Orrin Hatch on the job
When longtime public servant Orrin Hatch passed away last month, I paused to consider the immense impact his 42 years in the United States Senate had on our country and on our state. Though I didn’t know him as well as many others, our paths crossed a number of times, and I have long admired his leadership and demeanor. I was reminded of two interactions with Sen. Hatch that showed his commitment to the people he served.
The first came shortly after the senator’s retirement when he visited the Utah House of Representatives during the legislative session. I invited him to join me on the dais during floor debates and I recall how interested Sen. Hatch was in the details of the policies, the strategy of the sponsors and view of the opposition. He was clearly not feigning interest. Even in retirement he was keenly aware of issues impacting Utah and how the vote would impact the lives of people across our state.
My second recollection was of a visit I made to his office shortly after being elected Speaker of the Utah House of Representatives. A group of business leaders and I met with Sen. Hatch to discuss an issue before Congress that would impact Utah’s economy. Two observations from that meeting made a lasting impression on me: first, the remarkable level of respect his peers had for him and how that translated into influence; and second, even having served in Washington, D.C., for decades, how committed he was to understanding our position and prioritizing the needs of his constituents in the Beehive State.
As I serve as both the representative of Utah’s 15th District and as Speaker of the House, I appreciate the challenge of balancing the interests of one’s direct constituents and those of the entire state of Utah. Throughout his career, Hatch perfected the ability to do what was best both for Utah and for our nation.
While Sen. Hatch stood strongly in opposition to a government takeover of health care, he recognized the need to ensure children have access to medical care. His work to establish the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) has helped more than 100,000 children in Utah whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford private health insurance.
With an eye to the future, Sen. Hatch sponsored the Utah Schools and Lands Improvement Act, exchanging school trust lands with other federal lands, generating millions of dollars that benefit Utah students, schools and our economy today.
Having an influential leader in the Senate proved critical when Sen. Hatch helped deliver the necessary federal assistance for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, including funding to cover security enhancements for the first major international event after 9/11 and a world-class transit infrastructure that continues to move Utahns across the Wasatch Front.
As we struggle today with the impact of a severe, ongoing drought, many Utahns will recall when Sen. Hatch helped preserve funds for the Central Utah Project for water reclamation after President Jimmy Carter cut it from his budget. This project was completed and continues to provide water resources for Utah families, farms and businesses to this day.
As a leader in the “Sagebrush Rebellion” and advocate for Utah lands, Sen. Hatch fought federal overreach on state lands by running legislation to transfer western lands to the states.
More than the impact of any single piece of legislation, Orrin Hatch personified a senator who knew how to fight for what he believed in while still working with his colleagues to get things done. He knew the secret to legislating isn’t to hold out for everything you want but to find the win-win. As his former chief of staff Matt Sandgren wrote in The Wall Street Journal, Hatch believed politics to be “the art of persuasion, not humiliation.”
As I reflect on the life and service of the longest-serving Republican senator, I am reminded that one person can make a difference. Sen. Hatch’s example of leading, negotiating, working across the aisle, and fighting for his constituents will continue to be a gold standard.
Utah, like the rest of the country, benefitted immensely from Sen. Hatch’s life of service.
Brad Wilson is the Speaker of the Utah House of Representatives.