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Curt Bramble's emigration to Utah in the early 1980s was hardly an auspicious beginning for a man destined to become a pivotal Utah lawmaker.
For one thing, conservative Republicans aren't known for crossing the country on a romantic quest in a purple Ford van complete with shag carpet, curtains and the name "Petunia."
"To understand Curt, you need to understand where he comes from," says Bramble's close friend Stan Lockhart, a Micron lobbyist. "He was born and raised in Chicago and wrestled at Notre Dame."
In 1971, Bramble was a freshman at Notre Dame, where he wrestled on the varsity team. Bramble's high school sweetheart, however, had gone to Brigham Young University.
In his sophomore year, Bramble joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"By October, I converted. November I was baptized and by December I was on my way to BYU," Bramble remembers.
After driving "Petunia" straight through from Chicago, Bramble surprised his high school love by showing up on her apartment doorstep.
"She told me she was engaged to a returned missionary," Bramble says.
"I was pretty wasted after three days of no sleep. I found my dorm room and crashed."
The next morning, Bramble awoke to a view of the Timpanogos Mountains.
"It was a pretty profound experience," he says. "I decided to plant roots in Utah and build a life."
Into the Vortex: Thirty-three years later, Bramble has grown from an apolitical, lovesick Chicagoan, to a committed conservative who has a reputation as a legislative pit bull at the center of the state's most complex and emotionally charged issues.
Whether it's abortion, driver licenses for illegal residents, radioactive waste disposal or the overhaul of Utah's tax code- Bramble is in the vortex.
"Senator Bramble seeks out issues that are interesting to him and are the interests of the day," says Utah Senate President John Valentine. "He's extremely bright and he's tenacious. That combination makes him a very good power forward. I come in as the point guard and feed the ball to him and he scores."
Bramble critics, however, prefer metaphors of a darker nature, usually involving daggers or schoolyard bullies.
"Politics is about finding the middle ground and Senator Bramble tends to lob bombs at the middle ground," says environmental activist Jason Groenewold, who clashed with Bramble over nuclear waste legislation. "The words 'diplomacy' and 'statesman' were deleted from Senator Bramble's vocabulary a long time ago."
Longtime citizen lobbyist Claire Geddes sees Bramble as a frightening combination of ambition, intelligence and intimidation.
"He's nothing but a big bully," Geddes says. "Bramble is the most dangerous legislator up there. Someone as smart as he is can cause a whole lot of trouble. He knows how to shut down democracy better than anyone I know."
A recent example, say Bramble's critics, was his crushing of an alternative personal income tax plan favorable to working families, put forward by Democrat Pat Jones and moderate Republican Steve Mascaro.
After three years of unsuccessfully trying to get the graduated tax proposal before the Legislature, Jones and Mascaro expected the Tax Reform Task Force would consider it.
But in a rapid-fire vote Jones felt had been orchestrated by Task Force Senate Chairman Bramble, the Jones-Mascaro plan was swept into the political dust bin. Only Bramble's pet proposal, a flat tax, advanced to the Task Force as a whole.
Critical spectrum: Bramble's detractors cross party lines. Some conservatives reserve their harshest words for Bramble, who counts himself among the Legislature's far-right thinkers.
"He has developed a reputation for stabbing limited-government advocates in the back," says Daniel Newby of Accountability Utah.
Newby says Bramble betrayed anti-abortion activists on a bill to end public funding of abortion. The bill passed, but the state Health Department wrote new rules to allow hospitals to use creative accounting to pay for abortions of fatally deformed fetuses.
Extreme anti-abortion activists are convinced Bramble, in secret meetings, was involved in manipulating the rule. The year before, they believe he plotted a Democratic filibuster to stop the passage of a ban on "partial birth" abortions. They point to a $100 contribution from his wife, Susan, to former Democratic lawmaker Ron Allen, who led the filibuster, as proof of Bramble's perfidy.
Bramble maintains his interactions with the Health Department were routine to ensure their rule changes were consistent with the legislation's intent. And he denies involvement in the filibuster.
"Daniel is a disgruntled malcontent that has gone off the deep end," he said. Bramble acknowledged his wife's $100 donation to Allen but said it was a prank to madden conspiracy theorists whose paranoia is "beyond the black helicopter crowd."
Democrats often are more sympathetic than hard-core conservatives to the fiery senator, excusing Bramble's abrasive personality as a symptom of his passion for the issues.
"His intentions are honorable," says Jones. "He really feels what he is doing is right."
Republican Party activist Jacqueline Degaston was part of a challenge to Bramble's power at the last Utah County Republican convention. The bid to push the incumbent Bramble into a primary with Degaston was narrowly defeated, she says, after Bramble manipulated delegate appointments at the last minute.
"I have the most rotten taste in my mouth about that. It made me wonder if I wanted to continue to be a Republican," Degaston says. "This is the kind of thing you would expect party chiefs to do in Chicago. Just because it is done by 'nice' people in Provo doesn't make it right."
Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka says she is satisfied with Bramble's support for issues important to her morals-crusading group. "His voting record is very good."
Yet, Bramble is wary of his conservative allies. Ruzicka says Bramble got it into his head that she and Eagle Forum were behind Degaston's run at his seat.
"He brings it up every time I see him. Every time he brings it up, I say, 'No Curt, I had nothing to do with it.' I don't know why he's so obsessed over this. He needs to get over it."
Candor or venom? When it comes down to it, the biggest problem critics have with Bramble seems to be his personality, which can be most concisely described as not-Utah nice - especially when citizens disagree with him.
"When people would come up to testify [at public meetings on radioactive waste], he would ridicule and demean them," says Groenewold.
Valentine acknowledges that Bramble sometimes gets testy with citizens. "I've seen when he's had his patience tried. He gets a little short with them. He and I have talked about it. He recognizes it in himself."
Jon Dewey, a Salt Lake resident, had a very different encounter with Bramble. Dewey was angry about the Republican-controlled Legislature's ignoring the Jones-Mascaro proposal and e-mailed Bramble.
A "cordial and candid" Bramble called back and talked for a long time, Dewey says.
"I still disagree with him politically," Dewey says. "But that he called and took the time - I was impressed with that. He explained things and was not condescending."
Strident strategy? Though no political opponent would accuse Bramble of a sense of humor, he attempted a bit of stand-up comedy at a 2004 Tooele public meeting over radioactive waste legislation. Even Bramble acknowledges it ended in infamy and embarrassment.
Bramble joked that environmental group HEAL (Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah) really stood for "Help Educate Anal Liberals."
Bramble explains he was trying to defuse the tension over the controversial issue.
Environmentalists demanded Bramble resign from the task force and Senate leadership ordered the embattled Provo senator to publicly apologize.
Groenewold says boorish behavior is central to Bramble's strategy. "Senator Bramble's power comes when people don't hold their ground against him and he can roll over them."
Groenewold adds, "Senator Bramble makes it a point to make everything personal. I have no doubt he'll seek retribution against me for my comments."
Bramble is perplexed by the allegations of nastiness. He sees himself as being frank.
"Since when is being a straight shooter somehow an attribute worthy of contempt," he says. "Would we rather put our trust in somebody who equivocates and will tell three different people three different things so they all feel good about it?"
Still, Bramble, as a transplanted Chicagoan and a Mormon convert, agrees that part of his image problem could be the cultural backdrop.
"Our Utah culture is one of passive aggressiveness. People tend to be nice to their faces, but behind the scenes, they cut the legs out from under them."
Besides, he says, being an effective legislator requires a balance of compromise and standing your ground.
"Who would you rather have defending your rights? The person who would cave in or someone who is going to show tenacity? " Bramble says. "If you ask me where I am on an issue, I'll tell you. Yet somehow that's a negative."
Fruit Heights Sen. Greg Bell, a moderate Republican known for his tact and diplomacy, says Bramble can never be accused of ducking issues. "The guy is just brilliant, but he's very plainspoken. If he disagrees, he says it."
Ultimately, says Bramble, "You accomplish things because you worked hard and you brought people together - not because you steamrolled them."
Whirlwind: Much of Bramble's success is due simply to his focus and boundless energy. "I sleep about three to four hours a night - that gives me the time to read three or four books a week," he says.
This intensity extends into Bramble's free time, which he fills with hot air ballooning, motorcycles, sky and scuba diving, climbing and hiking.
Last weekend, Bramble's balloon, Stars and Stripes, which he owns with Utah House Majority Leader Jeff Alexander, took first place in a competition in Rock Springs.
Politics, however, is never far from the senator's mind.
"Winning in a balloon competition is like success in politics," a victory-flushed Bramble jokes. "It just kind of happens."
Sen. Curtis Bramble
Family: Wife, Susan, and six children
Education: Notre Dame, Brigham Young University
Profession: Tax accountant
Public offices: State Senate 2001, Vice Chairman for Executive Appropriations, Chairman of Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee
Hobbies: Hot air ballooning, motorcycling