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A few short weeks ago, Jason Chaffetz said he enjoyed his dream job at the helm of the state.
But Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s chief of staff apparently has awakened with a start.
The governor's office announced Monday that Chaffetz - Huntsman's right-hand man since the beginning of the 2004 campaign - will step aside in early November. Deputy Chief of Staff Neil Ashdown will move up to take on the point position.
Chaffetz insists he was not fired, saying he and the governor discussed his desire to leave for the past "six to eight weeks." Chaffetz says he wants a higher-paying job and to spend more time with his family.
"I would like to go back to the private sector," he said. "I have a wife and three kids that I miss dearly. Running a campaign and being chief of staff is a 365-day-a-year job, and I took a significant pay cut to do it."
Chaffetz, a former Nu Skin executive, received an annual salary of $118,000 to lead state workers.
Although his departure has been rumored for months, both the governor and Chaffetz remained coy about the chatter. That changed Monday after word leaked that he recently interviewed for a job as communication director with Larry Miller Sports and Entertainment. The governor's office rushed out a statement - on Columbus Day, a state holiday.
"We wish him well and support him as he begins this next pursuit in his life," Huntsman said in a news release.
A former kicker for Brigham Young University's football team, the 38-year-old Chaffetz ran Huntsman's successful campaign but was something of a surprise pick to run day-to-day operations of state government.
The transition was not always smooth.
He became the cold corporate face of the administration when he abruptly fired more than 30 economic development workers during the governor's first week in office.
And while Chaffetz was in on virtually every weighty decision Huntsman made, legislators and others complained the governor's chief of staff was acting like a jealous gatekeeper, blocking even the simplest conversations.
Chaffetz acknowledges being a "bit naive" about the inner workings of state government. He believed the Huntsman administration would be able to quickly implement its initiatives. But he calls complaints about him isolating the governor "hogwash."
"We have always had an open door and provided great access to the governor in the style and manner in which he wanted it executed," he said.
But in late June or early July, the governor's office sent legislators a letter urging them to contact Legislative Liaison Mike Mower if they needed anything from the executive branch, since many had a poor working relationship with Chaffetz.
Senate President John Valentine heard his fellow lawmakers gripe about the governor's chief of staff. But Valentine said he had easy access to Huntsman and a good working relationship with Chaffetz.
The Orem Republican said Chaffetz was invaluable as the new governor transitioned from running for election to governing, but Huntsman now needs a chief of staff more equipped to help him lead the state.
This summer, Chaffetz was rumored as a possible challenger for Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson. After exploring that idea, he told reporters on Aug. 19, "My career is best moving forward as the chief of staff," he said. "It's too early to step out of this position."
The same day, Huntsman said, "Jason is a capable and able public servant whose dedication to the office of governor I have been very excited with and I'm glad he will be continuing."
Still, the gossip persisted. In an interview Sept. 12, Huntsman was less glowing about his staff chief. Instead of praising Chaffetz, he repeated a speech about public service he gave all his employees as they came into office last January. The point being that everyone is expendable.
"Like anyone else in this job, he's free to do whatever he chooses, professionally or politically," Huntsman said.
Meantime, Chaffetz virtually has disappeared from the governor's side. For a few weeks this summer, a nasty broken foot forced him into bed rest and onto crutches. But even after regaining limited mobility, the chief of staff faded away. When Huntsman announced his tax plan last week, virtually every other staffer attended the press conference. Chaffetz' absence was notable.
Despite his job search, Chaffetz plans to continue his government work. Today, he is in New Mexico with Huntsman and other political leaders trying to come to terms on a potential Western States presidential primary.
And for his efforts, Huntsman has promised to help Chaffetz find a job. "Jason is a friend and has worked hard over the past two years on my campaign . . . and through the transition into office," the governor said in a press release.
Utah Jazz President Dennis Haslam declined to comment on how Chaffetz' interview was arranged or speculate on his prospects for the job. Team owner Larry Miller was co-chair of the governor's transition team. Former Jazz Vice President of Communications Caroline Shaw left her post for a job in California last week.
Political observers expect Chaffetz to find a soft landing. "The governor was extremely loyal to Jason," one said. "I'd be very astonished if there wasn't a place for him."
After more than seven years in Utah state government, Chaffetz' replacement is well-respected at the Capitol. Deputy director in the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget during former Gov. Mike Leavitt's term, Ashdown was promoted when voters elected Huntsman. He has worked quietly behind the scenes, specifically on the governor's tax plan. Ashdown, 35, has a doctorate in political science from State University of New York in Albany.
"I'm hoping to continue to work on the governor's policy agenda," Ashdown said. "We'll continue to work with legislators and policy-makers through the relationships we've developed so far."
Chaffetz lauded his replacement saying "there couldn't be a better choice than Neil."