Memories of Bill Orton

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.

17 comments for “Memories of Bill Orton

  1. During that first election, I was in high school and my dad was his campaign manager. I still have my “Bill Orton for Congress” t shirts around here somewhere. At the time I was just trying to pad my college applications and Sterling Scholar portfolio, but in retrospect it prepared me for many other life lessons (tracting, anyone?)

    I had the chance work on the campaign and then later in his office as a highschool/BYU student for years as an intern (my dad worked for him during his term as well). He was a kind and generous man.

    I was so sad to see this news. My prayers are with his family during this awful time.

  2. Marc,

    I too delivered the Utah County Journal as a 13 year old! I remember the ad well and have looked all over for it. Thank you for posting it. Your descriptions of delivering that paper bring back memories and not a few chuckles.

    Working on various Democratic campaigns I had a chance to watch Orton and was always amazed by his sincerity. He was loved by rural Utahns and seemed to be the only politician I have ever met who was100% unassuming and un-self-conscious.

    I remember seeing him once at a convention in Manti. While the other candidates were straightening ties and nervously checking their speeches, Bill Orton was drinking a big gulp and eating a Twinkie. I had to laugh and scratch my head, but when the meeting started, it was his speech that everyone listened too and he delivered it in a flawless conversational style.

    He could also disagree with people to their face without making them mad. On one occasion when he ran for governor I saw a voter at a meeting gripe about a headline in the Salt Lake Tribune from a few days prior. Orton replied: “Yes, but did you read the article?” Orton then began to recount the statistics buried in the actual article. He was smart man.

    After his improbable win he seemed to build trust by taking independent stands and listening to constituents. I remember him holding town meetings on the subject of Desert Storm to find out the voters views. I also remember seeing a photograph of him in jeans and boots, lifting a cardboard box while moving into his congressional office in early 1991.

    With his glasses, fluffy hair and cowboy boots, he gave an impression that he was a smart, somewhat cheesy, but super-honest guy. My experience bears out that he truly was an honest, dedicated public servant and he had great appeal to Utah voters of the era.

  3. Nicely said Marc. I lived in Utah when the 3rd Congressional District was created. I left Utah in 1988 but was shocked – and impressed – that a Democrat could win in that conservative district so soon after the initial election was held and the Democratic candidate running against Howard Nielson failed to register in time for the election and had to run as a write in candidate. As a self proclaimed Democrat I was embarrased by that circumstance but figured it might not have made any difference in the final outcome of the election. I was pleasantly surprised when Orton won the seat in 1990 and judged by the comments on the Deseret News website this past weekend, he was well like by both sides of the aisle.

    A fitting tribute to a good man and a great Congressman.

  4. Bill and I worked together in an EQ during college, and the traits he showed later were already evident. He was confident, but thoughtful and kind to people, and also open to all sorts of ideas and approaches. Once during a Priesthood lesson, after the famous verses from Ecclesiastes were read, he raised his hand and said “they left out the ‘turn, turn, turn.'” Probably wasn’t the first one to say it, but it was the first time I’d heard it, and it showed that even though he was usually in charge of whatever he didn’t take himself too seriously (nor was he afraid to show his age, as he was several years older than most of the students in the ward). I liked him a lot and was glad he won his congressional race later. He could have succeeded more in politics had he been a little more phony; but he was genuine and a mediator rather than a showboat or partisan dogmatist.

  5. I didn’t know him, but voted for him multiple times — I was that kind of he appealed to. I thought he was smart and honest and candid. I was happy for him when he married — and thought that, in the “most eligible bachelor” category, he far outranked Steve Young or Lloyd Newell, the other two most prominent bachelors of his approximate generation.

    For years I subscribed to the Richfield Reaper, an old-fashioned southern Utah newspaper that still reports local card parties and recoveries from illness. I followed the reports first of Bill Orton, and later of his Republican successor, of visits he made to the rural parts of Utah — the Reaper reported those in far greater detail than the Salt Lake papers did. Bill Orton never said one thing to his rural audiences and another thing in Utah County, even when the interests of the two sections were in conflict; his uniformity of message showed his political integrity.

  6. The Orton race was the first one our whole family got involved in. We distributed fliers and joined in the post-election celebration. My daughter, who now lives in Indiana, called me yesterday to be sure I had heard of this tragedy. She and I remembered Bill fondly. In fact, in our family memory book, I have a copy of the ad Marc posted. It was a foregone conclusion that the Republican would win, and in fact, if I recall, Snow had already leased a DC apartment. When election results started coming in, the Utah pollsters were simply stunned. A Democrat winning HERE???

    Our children were very young then. Now they are all active politically. And Orton was the first candidate we hitched our star to. He served us well. And what an example of dedicated fatherhood! So many newscasters loved photographing Orton carrying one of his infant sons in the halls of congress.

    Bruce and I looked at his sons’ blog yesterday. Touching and good.

  7. The fact that the advertisement missed an apostrophe on “don’t” was enough reason to vote against Karl Snow, IMO.

  8. I was in the KBYU newsroom for Orton’s first election cycle. One of our reporters was the only person from the media to show when he announced his candidacy and right there on the spot Orton told our reporter that when he won the election he would come to our studio before he would talk to any of the Salt Lake media. Sure enough, Bill kept his promise and moments after David Magelby announced the “stunning upset” Orton was following our reporter back to campus.

    I have many other stories from that cycle that not only show Orton as the class act he was, but also show exactly why the 3rd District got it right in rejecting Karl Snow.

  9. Thanks Margaret. Wow… seeing their blog really hits home after Bill Orton’s passing this weekend.

  10. Bill Orton was the first democrat I ever voted for. He was running against an old family friend, Karl Snow, but I was so ticked off at the Snow campaign’s “family” ad, that I voted against him.

  11. I didn’t know Congressman Orton personally, as I am from northern Utah and a Republican. When our son served in the Washington DC mission, however, Bill and his wife invited him to dinner more than once. He impressed our son as a gracious, generous and likable man, and I believe that is what he was. I have always been grateful for those acts of kindness.

  12. It was probably the summer of 1978 when I was in the same BYU ward as Bill Orton. He was a nice guy and smart and unconventional and looked like he was going places — and he had a hot car, so I kind of had a crush on him. I went with him and some others in his car up to Salt Lake City for the Pioneer Day Parade. I watched his career with interest, but our paths never crossed again after that time.

  13. In the mid 70’s, Bill Orton lived in my ward in Oregon. I was a teenager. He had longer dark hair and a handlebar mustache. While he mostly stayed in the background, he was always friendly and cordial.

    What impressed all the boys was the car he drove. He had a red Corvette with a custom license plate with two O’s. He painted two solid, black circles into the O’s, making them look like eyes. We all thought it was pretty cool.

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