Presidential campaigns aside, one of the first political races I can remember paying attention to growing up was the 1990 congressional race between Karl Snow and new comer Bill Orton to fill retiring Rep. Howard C. Nielson’s 3rd District congressional seat. I was 12 at the time and delivered the Utah County Journal, a free area newspaper. While Snow, a Republican, had initially had been considered a shoe-in to win in one of the most conservative districts in the country, the race grew increasingly competitive as election day neared. After the Utah Republican Party ran a now infamous ad that called into question Bill Orton’s “values,” the tide ultimately turning against Snow. The ad, which compared a photograph of Karl Snow’s large family to one lone shot of a then-unmarried Bill Orton, stuck with me through the years, in large part because it ran in the paper I delivered. The Journal, a free publication circulated several times a week, didn’t seem to get read much. As a carrier, it was not unusual for me to see stacks of unopened issues pile up on people’s doorsteps, and I actually had an ever-growing list of people specifically requesting not to receive it. After this ad ran, however, I had people on my route calling me because they couldn’t find their copy (this was both a first and a last).
That was my first memory of Bill Orton. Over the years there would be more, as Rep. Orton remained our Congressman through high school and into my first year of college. He managed to win re-election handily in both 1992 and 1994, surviving the tidal wave that hit congressional Democrats that year, and he likely would have won in 1996 had it not been for the residual anger Bill Clinton’s decision to unilaterally designate the Grand Staircase-Escalante as a National Monument produced among Orton’s constituents, a decision made with essentially no notice to Orton or the rest of Utah’s congressional delegation. As a result, Orton lost narrowly to Chris Cannon in the ’96 election, though I remember him performing very strong in a debate against Cannon held at Brigham Young University a few weeks before the election (the first and only political debate I’ve ever attended). In 2000, Orton made another run for office, this time for governor with education being the focus of his platform. Despite long odds against a popular governor, Orton made a race of it, eventually losing 55-42%, a marked improvement for Democrats from Governor Leavitt’s staggering 75-23% margin of victory in 1996. A tax attorney by trade, Brother Orton returned to the practice of law after his electoral defeats, but stayed active in the community and served as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention last year where he cast a vote in favor of Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee. He also remained active in the Church, serving in numerous callings.
My lasting impression of Brother Orton can only be that of a good, decent and dedicated individual, who was both civic-minded and politically engaged. Not overly-partisan, Orton was a political moderate who helped to found the conservative “Blue Dog Caucus” in the House of Representatives after the Democrats’ shellacking in ’94. Despite ideological differences, he was well-liked and respected among his Republican counterparts in Utah. In the end, I believe he not only left an indelible mark on the state of Utah, but left it a better place as well. At a time when Democrats in Utah had become increasingly scarce — especially Latter-day Saint Democrats — he helped the party by remaining a competitive candidate and bucking the stereotype many in Utah had of Democrats. In a 1998 interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, Elder Marlin K. Jensen may well have been alluding to Bill Orton, among others, when he spoke of “the notion that may prevail in some areas that you can’t be a good Mormon and a good Democrat at the same time,” and said that “There have been some awfully good men and women who have been both and are both today. So I think it would be a very healthy thing for the church — particularly the Utah church — if that notion could be obliterated.” Bill Orton did his part to help obliterate that notion and spur a more robust dialogue on public policy in Utah, and for this reason both the Republican and Democratic parties in Utah are better today.
Bill Orton’s passing this weekend at the relatively young age of sixty is a loss for all Utahns. My heart aches for his wife and two young teenage boys, and I pray that they will be comforted during this difficult time. If you have any thoughts or memories about Bill Orton you’d like to share or if you simply wish to extend sympathies to his family and friends, feel free to do so here.