A Utah Congressman Faces the 'Resistance' in His Home State

The backlash against Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz in his district has a distinctly Mormon flavor to it.

AP / Rick Bowmer

The raucous crowd of Utahans that booed Representative Jason Chaffetz off the stage Thursday night were, in many ways, a motley lot. Some were progressive organizers rallying against President Trump’s agenda; others were hunters and hippies who had come to sound off on the hot-button public lands debate; and a not-inconsiderable portion of the audience was made up of mild-mannered Mormons for whom protest culture was about as familiar as beer pong.

But when it came time to chant, they all spoke in one voice: “Do your job! Do your job! Do your job!”

In Utah, a place where industriousness and honest work are part of the DNA, these shouts carried a serious accusation. When the state was first founded in the mid-19th century, Mormon settlers named it “Deseret”—a term from the Book of Mormon that means “honeybee”—and circulated currency emblazoned with the message, “Do your duty.” This frontier ethos has persisted through the generations. Today, Utah’s nickname remains “the Beehive state.” Its official motto: “Industry.”

Several of the constituents who swarmed Chaffetz’s town hall Thursday night told me the backlash was not just about policy—it was also fueled by anger that the congressman was shirking his duty as chairman of the House Oversight Committee by refusing to investigate Trump. In their view, his was not just a failure of government, but of character.

“This wasn’t about Chaffetz being a Republican … This was about Chaffetz straining at gnats for Hillary and Obama, and swallowing camels when it comes to Trump,” said Jeff Swift, a Mormon Democrat from South Jordan who helped organize opponents’ turnout at the town hall.

Matthew Ancell, a literature professor at Brigham Young University who was among the hundreds of protesters outside the event, similarly pointed to Chaffetz’s reluctance to dig into Trump’s alleged misdeeds. “It is explicitly his job to investigate, and he’s not,” Ancell told me.

Chaffetz has said he will investigate Trump if he feels compelled to do so, but that he won’t go on a “fishing expedition” in search of wrongdoing. Ancell dismissed this reasoning as a weak excuse. “This fish has now jumped in the boat and is biting his leg.”

Carina Hoskisson drove up to the town hall from Provo, where she and her friends have been struggling since the election to effectively voice their displeasure with Trump and his GOP allies. “My friends, who are mostly Mormon moms, run the gamut from conservative, moderate, to progressive, but the one thing we all have in common is how upset we are about Trump’s election and how our representatives folded and endorsed him,” Hoskisson said.

She told me Chaffetz’s behavior has been especially galvanizing to Trump’s opponents. “I think plenty of Utahans were fine with him investigating Hillary, but to see Chaffetz not going after what appear to be serious violations in the executive branch means it was partisanship and not moral imperative that drove him. And that’s unacceptable to Utahans.”

Kellie Baker Daniels, another Provo woman who was at the town hall, echoed these sentiments. “I’m upset with Chaffetz because I feel like he is a craven opportunist and he only takes his job seriously if it benefits him,” she told me. “Right now, Congress is not doing their job checking the president … Chaffetz actually is in a position to do something, and he is my representative.”

Despite Utah’s status as one of the most conservative states in the country, Trump has never been very popular there. He carried the state’s electoral votes last year with just 45 percent of the vote. Up to now, Republican officeholders in the state have been largely insulated from their constituents’ opposition to the president—but some progressives in the state are hoping that will change.

“My read of the situation is that people here would have left Chaffetz largely alone if he hadn’t been so transparently bowing to Trump,” said Steve Evans, a Salt Lake City attorney and editor of By Common Consent, a popular liberal Mormon blog. “Before the election, Chaffetz had been vociferous about the morality of pursuing Clinton, so it’s viewed as hypocrisy that he now will do nothing with respect to Trump.”

While it remains unlikely that Chaffetz will be unseated in 2018, the uproar in his home district could cause him to get tougher on the Trump administration from his perch on the Oversight Committee. Opponents are vowing to keep the pressure on: Already, a potential challenger has announced he’s considering entering next year’s Republican primary, and at least one anti-Chaffetz PAC has been launched in the state.

Meanwhile, Utah’s unique “resistance” movement is still sorting things out. Among the dedicated Facebook groups that helped get protesters to the town hall, the chatter Friday morning was mostly celebratory—but not entirely. According to one member, there has been extensive hand-wringing “about how we weren’t polite enough [to Chaffetz] and whether that’s good or bad.”

“Gotta love Utah!” the member cracked.