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Nobody ever really knew what Salt Lake County politician Randy Horiuchi was going to do next, even at the end.

Horiuchi died Thursday afternoon in a Salt Lake City hospital at the age of 61, to the surprise of many friends who remarked how well he looked in recent months, going to University of Utah football games and to a roast for his longtime friend and Salt Lake Tribune writer Paul Rolly.

But the ravages of a stroke a couple of years back intensified this past week for the longtime county leader, who served two terms on the commission and three on the council that replaced it.

His condition deteriorated quickly after that, said his brother Vince Horiuchi, although family members said final goodbyes before he died peacefully.

Horiuchi died a little sad because his beloved Los Angeles Dodgers fell short of winning a World Series this fall.

But, as Vince noted, "At least he got to see the Utes go up to No. 3. I know that was sweet for him."

Horiuchi's well-known love for sports was exceeded by his devotion to politics and the Democratic Party.

He was a Cottonwood High School student when he first got involved, successfully running a campaign in which Ray Uno won a judgeship, starting a respected career.

A state high school debate champion and Cottonwood's student body president, Horiuchi almost won a seat himself on the Granite School Board before graduating from the U. and becoming a teacher at Kearns High School.

But he still had the political bug and moved on to the Salt Lake Chamber, where he began lobbying, getting to know more and more people on all sides of the political aisle.

He ran election campaigns for Dan Berman, Kem Gardner and Ted Wilson, was the state Democratic Party chairman in the mid-1980s and helped build a generation of Democratic leaders — to name a few, Blaze Wharton, Jenny Wilson, Frank Pignanelli, Jill Remington Love, Kelly Atkinson and current County Clerk Sherrie Swensen.

"His enthusiasm was just so contagious," Swensen said. "You couldn't help but feel positive about anything and everything Randy was involved in."

Love was an 18-year-old delegate at a state Democratic convention when Horiuchi first recruited her to work on a campaign.

"He was charismatic and philosophical and recruited me year in and year out. I couldn't refuse him," said Love, a Salt Lake City executive. "I have memories of being at Village Inn with him at 2 a.m. after putting up or taking down signs. It was always an adventure with Randy."

People far and wide knew that, too.

Some realized it from seeing pictures of Horiuchi wearing a hazmat suit for a news conference when he was party chairman, or campaigning against Republican County Commissioner Tom Shimizu with the catchy phrase, "Why would you want an old Shimizu when you can have a new Horiuchi?"

While they were gimmicks, fellow Commissioner and Councilman Jim Bradley said, "they always had a point behind them. He had a real skill of attracting attention to an important issue in a way that was dramatic. It was a real ability he had — to cut to the chase, to come up with one-liners that went to the heart of an issue."

Horiuchi's ability to gauge situations and bring people together to find a solution impressed Jenny Wilson, who replaced him on the council in January and has known him since they worked together on her father, Ted's, 1988 gubernatorial campaign.

"He was my first boss," she said. "He had a real sophisticated understanding of how everything in the community worked, not just politics. It's because he had friends everywhere — Democrats, Republicans, low-income people, the wealthy. He drew people to him. He always made things relevant, interesting and fun."

Retired 3rd District Judge Scott Daniels said it was understandable that so many people knew Horiuchi because of his high-profile character. What was remarkable to him was how Horiuchi remembered people.

"Randy knew something about their family or he worked with them at Kearns High," Daniels said. "He was a connector, connected to thousands of people. And he treated everybody the same. It didn't matter if it was the governor or the janitor, he'd be talking to them with the same level of respect and attention. That was the distinguishing characteristic about Randy."

Naturally, Horiuchi also had detractors. He was accused of cronyism on several occasions, notably for his close connections to controversial real-estate developer Terry Diehl.

But he was loyal, a point emphasized repeatedly by colleagues, and at his going-away party from the county in December, Horiuchi had Diehl sit at his table and praised the developer for "really exemplifying what friendship is all about."

That kind of friendship did not surprise former County Councilman Joe Hatch, Horiuchi's comrade-in-arms for 30 years.

"Randy didn't find ill in really anybody, including Republicans he disagreed with," Hatch said. "Many of those Republicans were his good friends even though they disagreed theoretically with what he said."

Beyond that, he added, Horiuchi had an "amazing" ability to defuse situations in which people were venting at county officials in anger or wackiness.

"Randy could eliminate the nonsense and do it in such a kind, jovial manner that the people he was rallying against would think, 'There's my buddy Randy helping me out.' It was an absolute joy to see," Hatch said. "I've never seen a politician as good at it. But it wasn't disingenuous. It was a unique spirit."

As a Republican and a BYU fan, House Speaker Greg Hughes had little in common with Ute-loving Democrat Horiuchi, but they formed a fast friendship through the years.

"He had good friends in every circle he ran in. I don't know anybody like Randy Horiuchi," Hughes said. "He was always optimistic. When we had an issue, a challenge, he would say 'we can get this done.' I've never had a bad experience with him, and, in politics, that's saying something."

The most prominent Utah face in Democratic politics today, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, said he's tried to model himself in ways after Horiuchi, who could mix in "a jovial laugh as he's talking about a meaty policy issue."

"Randy didn't let policy differences get in the way of friendship," McAdams said, while never wavering from his dedication to the Democratic Party. "We'll all have a warm place in our hearts for his ability to deliver the Democratic message with a laugh and a smile."

Born May 9, 1954, to the late Tsutomu and May Horiuchi, he is survived by three brothers Wayne, Sherm and Vince; his wife, Frances McConaughy; their daughter, Madeline; and her son Andrew Stoeckl. He was preceded in death by an infant son, Shane, by his first wife, Theresa Ivory.

A private family service will be held next week, prior to burial in Mt. Calvary Cemetery. A public memorial service will be held after Thanksgiving.