Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens, newly elected president of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), expects the high profile job to give him more exposure and provide more fund-raising opportunities in a possible 2004 run for governor.
NCSL, a nonpartisan organization that monitors state government and gathers and exchanges information about state policies, at first denied Stephens a leadership post for refusing to rule out a run for governor. But when Nebraska Speaker Doug Kristensen resigned as the organization's vice president, NCSL's nominating committee invited Stephens to step in and automatically ascend to the group's presidency without any conditions.
Stephens, a 49-year-old Republican banker who will formally announce his political intentions in September, took the gavel from Rep. Angela Monson, D-Oklahoma City, at the group's annual meeting in San Francisco last month. His term as NCSL president expires in July, 2004, four months before the gubernatorial election, and he's sworn off running for the state legislature again.
Third-term Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt hasn't said whether he'll seek re-election. Other potential Republican candidates include ex-pro baseball player Dale Murphy, businessman Fred Lampropoulous, state Board of Regents Chairman Nolan Karras, former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr.
Democrat Scott Matheson Jr., a law professor and son of a former Utah governor, also is expected to run.
Stephens said the NCSL post could help him with fund-raising and increase national exposure but won't offer a significant in-state advantage.
"It shows I have some skills in leadership," said Stephens, who is serving an unprecedented third term as Utah House speaker. "I'm one of the most conservative presidents that NCSL has had."
Stephens will bring a pro-business, conservative viewpoint to his role at NCSL, said Susan Koehn, a former Utah state legislator who lobbies for groups such as the Professional Firefighters of Utah and AT&T.
Stephens oversees disaster recovery for Zions Bank and talks about the economy weekly on KSFI-FM. He has a knack for numbers and memorization, and rattled off a half-dozen colleagues' phone numbers in an interview during the American Legislative Exchange Council's recent meeting in Washington, D.C.
"But it's not just a matter of memorizing statistics. He can put the whole picture together in his head. He can take facts and put them in perspective. Initially he may appear to be a little standoffish, but that is absolutely not his personality," Koehn said.
As NCSL president, Stephens said he will improve ties with the Bush administration on issues such as No Child Left Behind, the sweeping education law that requires states to measure student progress each year. Stephens said he will discourage state lawmakers from using lawsuits to get their way on the law's implementation.
"In a less confrontive way, I think we can get more accomplished. The intent of the legislation is excellent. The implementation could be a problem if states don't take an active role, " Stephens told Stateline.org.
First elected to the state legislature in 1988 after serving as Farr West City mayor, Stephens regards the enactment of an open records law that earned him a 1991 award from the Society of Professional Journalists as his proudest legislative accomplishment .
Another Stephens-sponsored law created competitive online bidding for state procurement in 2001.
Stephens has also known defeat, and said he wondered if his political career was over when he lost his first race for speaker by two votes in 1994.
"It was a difficult time for me," he said. His soul-searching led him to design his own reading program, and he completes a book weekly by getting up early and forsaking TV except when the Utah Jazz basketball team is playing.
Stephens' recent reading has included: "A Different Drummer: Thirty Years With Ronald Reagan," by Michael Deaver, "Treason: Liberal Treachery From The Cold War to The War On Terrorism," by Ann Coulter, "The Private Life Of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs Of Mao's Personal Physician," by Zhisui Li, and "Long Walk To Freedom: The Autobiography Of Nelson Mandela."
Stephens' demeanor seldom changes when he's acting as speaker, but he occasionally cracks up lawmakers, said Utah Rep. Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake City.
"He has a dry sense of humor, and unless you're around him a fair amount, you don't have a chance to see it or appreciate it. He's a right-down-to-business sort of person," Becker said.
From 1973 to 1975, Stephens was a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionary in Japan . Afterwards, his mother handed him a list of young women to date, and he married one of them. Stephens laughingly recalls that his mother has ever since taken credit for choosing his wife.
Married for 27 years, Stephens and his wife Carole have six children ranging from ages 26 to 17, and live on six acres in Farr West with horses Lucky and Sunny. Stephens said he enjoys backpacking, playing basketball, raising hay, riding horses and bottle-feeding calves.
Stephens, whose campaign slogan has been, "Working for Utah's Future," said he's in public service because "I feel I'm making a difference. I feel passionately about my work, about protecting people's freedoms. Government has a tremendous capacity for good."