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Washington • A dozen years ago, few people even knew Jason Chaffetz's name.
If they did, it was from his days as a kicker for Brigham Young University's football team. The young athlete relished pulling off his helmet after a successful boot and fanning his curly locks for the cameras.
Today, the 48-year-old Chaffetz is a well-known Utah congressman a frequent TV guest, a social-media savant and head of a powerful committee who is eyeing the top job in the U.S. House.
The Utah Republican is expected to announce Sunday his quest to succeed House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who is resigning at month's end.
Chaffetz's rapid rise from political novice to political star is an anomaly in some ways. He didn't start in local politics and take baby steps up a long ladder. He wasn't a wealthy businessman or the son of a political icon.
When he announced he was "testing the waters" for a congressional run on New Year's Day 2007 a time he picked because he thought he could grab the most media attention Chaffetz said he was a "frustrated conservative" who was "hungry and excited." His target, longtime Rep. Chris Cannon, hadn't even been sworn into office for his next term.
Chaffetz's long-shot bid in which he promised no free lunches or gifts for GOP delegates who would decide the nominee was virtually dismissed at first. He was outspent 9-to-1 by Cannon and 6-to-1 by challenger David Leavitt, the brother of former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt.
"A lot of people thought he had no chance because he wasn't well known in the party," recalls Neil Ashdown, then-chief of staff to Gov. Jon Huntsman.
But Chaffetz spent every waking minute talking to delegates and traversing the state to meet them one on one. At the GOP convention, he came within a few votes of knocking Cannon off the ballot. He eventually prevailed over Cannon in a primary and coasted through the general election in the heavily Republican district to win his first political office.
"He worked hard," Ashdown says. "Nobody works harder than Jason."
He will need that work ethic in coming days as he takes on another tall task. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is the odds-on favorite for the speakership. The frequently divided and sometimes-unruly GOP caucus makes its choice Thursday.
Chaffetz has been pitching fellow House Republicans that he can unite the right flank and the centrists to better own the GOP's messaging.
It's an interesting spot for a one-time Democrat who campaigned for then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
Conversion • Chaffetz was born to Peggy and John Chaffetz in Santa Clara County, Calif., and bounced between there, Arizona and Colorado in his youth. His father previously had been married to Katharine "Kitty" Dickson, who later would wed Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee.
Jason Chaffetz earned an athletic scholarship to LDS Church-owned BYU, though he wasn't a Mormon at the time.
At BYU, an overwhelmingly conservative campus, he got his first taste of politics, co-chairing Dukakis' presidential run in Utah. Chaffetz says he wasn't that political and acted more as a gofer for the candidate when campaigning with him.
His stint as a Democrat and a non-Mormon didn't last long. He met with LDS missionaries at BYU and joined the faith. Later, as a public-relations official for the multilevel-marketing company Nu Skin, he met former President Ronald Reagan and became a Republican.
"I owe so much to this community. I came here with nothing," he told delegates at the 2008 Utah Republican Party Convention. "I'm a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; I'm a convert to the Republican Party."
The line earned him loud applause.
At Nu Skin, Chaffetz honed his communication skills for about a decade. He left the company in 2001 and joined Headwaters Inc. but later moved back to Arizona, where his wife, Julie, grew up. That didn't last long and the couple returned to Utah.
In 2003, Chaffetz wasn't sure of his next step. He applied to the Secret Service but was rejected (a detail that would later emerge as he investigated the agency). He finally asked political consultant Chuck Warren to set up a meeting with Jon Huntsman, who was seeking the governor's office.
Huntsman hired Chaffetz as his communications director and then made him campaign manager. Chaffetz noted that he never had run a campaign.
"Don't worry," Chaffetz recalls Huntsman responding. "I've never run for governor before. We'll figure it out."
Chaffetz managed the incoming governor's transition and rose to chief of staff. He left amid grumbling by some Utah lawmakers about his gruff approach.Ashdown, who replaced him as chief of staff, says he wouldn't have guessed how quickly Chaffetz would rise in politics but it wasn't a shock.
"I knew he was going places," Ashdown says. "He definitely had that leadership quality. And he had a knack for what it takes to be in politics today, and that's communications abilities."
Cot guy • Arriving in Washington in 2009 as a newly minted congressman, Chaffetz carried a cot wrapped in duct tape and chatted with reporters waiting to meet the Capitol Hill newbies. He would sleep in the cot in his office, he promised, and live frugally like he believes the federal government should.
He teamed up with Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., to star in CNN's "Freshman Year," carrying a video camera around to show viewers what the first year of serving in Congress looks like. He even leg-wrestled and lost to Stephen Colbert on the comedian's "Better Know a District" segment.
He tried to make friends quickly. While other members were lobbying for prime committee spots, Chaffetz told then-Minority Leader Boehner that he would take whatever the leader needed him to fill.
Boehner rewarded Chaffetz with seats on the Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees (Chaffetz now leads the latter).
Along the way, though, Chaffetz hit some bumps.
As head of an Oversight subcommittee, Chaffetz targeted the use of body-imaging machines used by the Transportation Security Administration and refused to go through any of the screenings. On Sept. 29, 2009, Chaffetz told a TSA agent he didn't want to go though the machine and exchanged words with a supervisor when he was being patted down, according to a TSA report on the incident.
"Do you know who I am?" Chaffetz reportedly said, later handing the supervisor his congressional business card.
Chaffetz's antagonistic style in questioning witnesses before his Oversight committee has earned him criticism, even as recently as last week, when progressives panned him for grilling Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards.
But he has good relationships with Democrats as Oversight chairman. The minority party complained often about the previous chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif..
Chaffetz "actually pulled in support from Democrats when possible, where Mr. Issa intentionally drove Democratic support away," Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., told RealClearPolitics earlier this year. "[Issa] just had a totally different approach; he was a very polarizing figure when he was the chairman. He did some embarrassing things when he was the chairman. There's no comparison really in terms of how these two gentlemen have handled their jobs."
Oversight has given Chaffetz a megaphone to lambaste the Obama administration and pry into hot issues such as Planned Parenthood's federal funding, the IRS scandal and Secret Service security lapses.
But the role of speaker would offer a new challenge: How to work with a fractured GOP caucus and govern as the majority party against a Democratic president and a Senate with enough Democrats to block action.
Even if Chaffetz loses his bid, the idea that a political newcomer only 12 years ago is now running for the House's No. 1 slot is startling. Boehner spent 10 terms in the House before assuming the top spot. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had nine terms before rising. Chaffetz is in his fourth term.
Even so, state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, is not surprised by Chaffetz's quick climb, noting he had solid mentors along the way. "There may be some who question his tactics when he was first elected," Bramble says. "But he has been distinguishing himself time and time again as a leader. … He's been growing and maturing in his role, and he's been doing so in a very positive way."