Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) won his seat in Congress by running to the right of an incumbent Republican.
But more than 20 years ago, he was a Utah co-chairman for the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, to whom he has a family connection.
Chaffetz, who since his election last fall has become a leading conservative figure in the culture wars, is an example of how blood is thicker than politics.
In the past month, Chaffetz has emerged as a vocal opponent of the D.C. Council’s recent decision to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. He has co-sponsored legislation aimed at blocking the council’s effort and is the top Republican on the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee with jurisdiction over the bill.
But while other freshmen with similar views in the GOP are written off by Democrats as ideologically antiquated or one-hit wonders, Chaffetz has been able to forge uncommon friendships with several liberal members of the Massachusetts delegation through his family connection with Dukakis.
“After he won the primary, I told him I had to bring him closer to the center,— said Dukakis, now a professor at Northeastern University. “He told me, It’s the only place I can go.’—
In describing his family ties, Chaffetz said, “I wish I had a flip chart.—
Chaffetz’s father, John, was previously married to Kitty Dukakis. The couple had a son, also named John.
“Well, the best thing that ever happened to me is they got divorced,— Rep. Chaffetz said. “Then my dad married my mother and had me. Kitty married Michael.—
John Chaffetz Dukakis, the Congressman’s half-brother, and Rep. Chaffetz were close while growing up, and John Chaffetz Dukakis knew Capitol Hill from his service as a staffer for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 1980s.
So when Jason Chaffetz was elected to Congress in 2008, John Chaffetz Dukakis called his longtime friend Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).
“He asked me to watch out for his brother,— said McGovern, who gave John Chaffetz Dukakis a ticket to Jason Chaffetz’s swearing-in last January. “We all feel like he’s family because of his connection to Massachusetts.—
Rep. Chaffetz is a bit of a black sheep in the Massachusetts clan. Aside from hailing from Utah by way of California, he ran on a platform to the right of Republican incumbent Rep. Chris Cannon and won the primary by 20 points.
Asked whether his conservative opinions, especially his recent attempts to block same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia, could put Chaffetz at odds with the tightly knit and fiercely liberal East Coast delegation, McGovern said not necessarily.
“Blood is thicker than water in the Massachusetts delegation,— McGovern said. “Hate the sin, not the sinner.—
Dukakis called Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) to explain his relationship to Chaffetz, after introducing him to Delahunt on Inauguration Day.
“I asked him if he understood the connection,— Dukakis said. “He said, It took me about 15 minutes.’—
Delahunt said Chaffetz is well-liked by Democrats.
“He is a very impressive young man,— Delahunt said. “He has excellent people skills, and he knows how to state his position in a way that is respectful. He’s someone with a future here because of that.—
Their acceptance has not been lost on Chaffetz, who counts Delahunt, McGovern and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) as friends on the other side of the aisle.
“From Markey to Delahunt to McGovern, all people I would normally never hang out with, I know on a first-name basis,— Chaffetz said. “And so that, oddly enough, is a big advantage for a rookie Republican.—
Dukakis said: “We are all close. We all grew up politically together. I’m delighted they are now helping Jason.—
It was the freshman Congressman’s surname that drew the attention of Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).
“He came up to me and was fascinated by the idea that I had a Jewish last name but had converted to the Mormon Church,— Chaffetz said. “He wanted to know how that happened.—
Chaffetz told Waxman that he converted to the Mormon Church while at school on a football scholarship at Brigham Young University. He said he then parlayed the conversation into an opportunity to seek advice from Waxman, the former chairman of Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“I remember my first couple weeks up here, he took me aside for about an hour and a half and talked about the Oversight and Government Reform Committee [that] he was leaving [and] I was coming into, and I was looking for advice,— Chaffetz said. “He shared some ideas and thoughts. [He was] very open-handed.—
However, not all of the Members of the delegation look fondly on the new culture warrior.
Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said that although he counts John Chaffetz Dukakis as a friend, he was “unhappy— that Rep. Chaffetz had chosen to position himself at the helm of the same-sex marriage debate in Washington, D.C.
Frank pointed to the fact that Chaffetz doesn’t reside in the District of Columbia and that “no one was asking him to come to a wedding.—
“I find that mean-spirited,— Frank said.
Chaffetz said that although he is against same-sex civil unions or marriage, he had not intended to insert himself into the center of the political storm. But because the issue came under the jurisdiction of the subcommittee where he serves as the ranking member, he felt compelled to weigh in.
“You know there are questions out there — why do you even deal with Washington? Well, Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution says that we have to do that,— Chaffetz said.
Congress has the ultimate approval over decisions made by the 13-member D.C. Council and has 30 days to review their May 5 decision on same-sex marriage.
“I didn’t wake up [last month] thinking, All right, I gotta go fight the gay marriage issue,’— he said. “I woke up, and by the end of the day, that was the issue of the day.—
That said, Chaffetz said he would not shy away from a political fight on this issue.
“There will be more of a battle through some procedural things, procedural tactics that we can use in the minority,— he said. “We’ll fight. We’re ready.—
But even on this classic conservative issue, Chaffetz may find himself working with politicians with whom he would otherwise expect to have little common ground.
D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry (D) was the only member of the body to vote against the motion.
“We were just laughing, I never campaigned on the idea that I’d be locking arms with Marion Barry,— Chaffetz said, adding that he had started discussions with local ministers who also oppose the council’s decision. “Maybe I’ll meet him at Five Guys sometime.—