Retiring Utah AG Bucks Conservative Orthodoxy In Favor of ‘Practical’ Solutions
By Mary Jacoby and Elizabeth Murphy | October 26, 2012 1:17 pm

Utah’s retiring attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, supports comprehensive immigration reform, calls the congressional Fast and Furious investigation a missed opportunity to tackle weapons flows to Mexico, and thinks Eric Holder is doing a good job.

Mark Shurtleff (rights reserved)

No, he’s not a Democrat.

“They call me a RINO (Republican in Name Only). I call myself a pragmatic conservative,” says Shurtleff, who was elected three times in Utah with an average of 64.9 percent of the vote.

Main Justice caught up with Shurtleff recently to ask what drives his views. In an era of deep partisan divisions, he’s unusual for his willingness to buck conservative orthodoxy in favor of practical solutions to law enforcement.

Here’s what he had to say.

Immigration reform

Shurtleff supports the proposed Dream Act providing a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria. And he supports in-state tuition breaks for them.

Neither position is popular in today’s Republican Party.

“On immigration issues in Utah, the Right does not like me,” Shurtleff said. “You can go along with nine out of ten of their issues, but if you deviate on one, you’re the enemy.”

Shurtleff was one of the signatories to the Utah Compact, a 2010 statement drafted by community, business and religious groups intended to change the tone of the debate over illegal immigration. Among other principles it endorsed the supremacy of the federal government over immigration and finding a humane solution that keeps families intact.

“A clearer expression of good sense and sanity than Utah’s would be hard to find,” a 2010 New York Times editorial pronounced.

In 2011, Shurtleff presented the Utah Compact to Holder, the White House and at a meeting of state attorneys general in Washington. He pressed – so far, unsuccessfully — for the compact to be adopted as a model for a national approach to immigration. However support is growing: Indiana, Iowa and parts of Arizona have adopted a similar approach, while a number of other states are considering it.

“Until Congress gets its act together, we in law enforcement have to deal with immigrants. It makes sense to keep those kids involved in school, learning English and getting an opportunity to work. That’s the pragmatic approach,” Shurtleff said.

Fast and Furious

Shurtleff and former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat, wrote an op-ed piece in 2011 supporting the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, then under attack by Republicans in Congress for the failed Fast and Furious operation that lost track of U.S.-purchased weapons investigators were trying to link to violent Mexican drug cartels.

Shurtleff and Goddard said Congress was part of the problem by restricting ATF’s jurisdiction, barring release of illegal gun-trafficking statistics that could help ATF better track illegal weapons flows, and hampering the agency with inadequate funding.

“Let’s keep our sights firmly on the target and not on an issue manufactured for the media. The cartels are our enemy, not the ATF or the Justice Department,” the two wrote.

Both had worked with Mexican authorities over the years to stem the flow of weapons south.

ATF’s failure “was to not work closely enough with Mexican authorities, and to lose track of the weapons. You have to implement tracking devices. It was a big mistake and it was done wrong,” Shurtleff said.

“But you’re still left with this issue of what would we do? My point was instead of hauling Holder before Congress let’s provide the resources finally, and also the tools that would allow charging the crime of smuggling.”

He added: “There needs to be a specific crime of smuggling firearms. But there isn’t. So they [law enforcers] end up having to use other types of laws that don’t directly apply.”

Violence Against Women Act

The outgoing Utah attorney general is particularly disappointed with conservatives who have blocked reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, originally passed in 1994 with bipartisan support and reauthorized twice since then. This year, Republicans objected to provisions protecting same-sex couples and undocumented immigrants, and the reauthorization has languished.

Shurtleff and Doug Gansler, the Democratic attorney general of Maryland, wrote an opinion piece in Politico saying the stalemate makes it harder to combat human trafficking. Also, they wrote, without the law, illegal immigrants have no legal way to report abuse. Abusers can intimidate women into silence by telling them they’ll be deported if they report to authorities.

“Again, let’s be pragmatic. VAWA over 18 years has been shown to be effective. And yet we can’t pass reauthorization?” Shurtleff said in the interview. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Personal life

Shurtleff describes himself as fiscally conservative but socially moderate.

A Mormon who served his mission in Peru before moving on to law school and the Navy, Shurtleff speaks Spanish and admires Latin culture. “I was fluent at one time. I would dream in Spanish. I can give an interview in Spanish. I’m told I still speak very well by my Spanish-speaking friends. I love the language.”

Moreover, he is the father of three adopted children — two of them of Mexican heritage. All three adopted children were born with medical problems attributable to their mother’s drug addictions. (Shurtleff is also the father two biological children, ages 26 and 28.)

“People will look at this in a negative light and say, ‘Well, it’s only because you went to Peru, or your daughters are Latina, that you’re’” supportive of immigration reform. “But to me, the truly American approach is comprehensive, just and compassionate reform. This horrible closed-door, run-‘em-out answer doesn’t work.”

He added: “I learned a lot having adopted three drug babies and mixed race children – my daughter hanging out with kids with mohawks and lots of piercing and tattoos, and not being judgmental about that.”

Political career

Shurtleff, who supported John McCain for president in 2008 over fellow Mormon Mitt Romney, briefly ran for the GOP Senate nomination in 2009. Then-Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) was vulnerable because of his vote for the financial industry bailout and perceived Washington insider status.

But 2009 was also the year of the rise of the anti-establishment, no-compromise Tea Party. The changing political winds aren’t the reason Shurtleff gives for dropping out. But ultimately, it was a Tea Party-backed insurgent, Mike Lee, who defeated Bennett in a widely watched GOP caucus and is now the state’s junior U.S. senator.

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, told Main Justice that Shurtleff didn’t get the expected support from Republicans in terms of endorsements and donations.

Lots of Republicans “felt he wasn’t a consistent supporter of conservative positions,” Burbank said. “In my view, that’s not a bad thing coming from the Attorney General position because it ought not to be all about a straight forward party position. But within Republican circles there wasn’t strong support.”

In dropping out, Shurtleff cited his adopted then-17-year-old daughter’s struggles with mental health problems.

But there were other currents at work. Allegations had arisen in the Utah press that Shurtleff had declined to open criminal investigations into prominent campaign backers.

One of them, Jeremy Johnson, was indicted on mail fraud charges in 2011. He had been accused by the Federal Trade Commission of fraudulently billing hundreds of thousands of customers for bogus money-making and government-grant schemes. Johnson and his partners had raised some $200,000 for Shurtleff since 2008.

Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s office, said Shurtleff has a long history of investigating both friends and political allies. In the case against Johnson, he noted that the state Department of Commerce oversaw the state investigation into Johnson’s company, and said the case had nothing to do with Shurtleff’s decision to retire.

Shurtleff also told Main Justice that no allegations against Johnson or any other campaign contributor had anything to do with his decision to retire.

“I love this job and have been easily reelected twice,” he said. “I am very proud of my record of tough prosecution of white collar crime in this state.”

Warm relations with Holder

In January Shurtleff defended the choice of Holder to speak at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission luncheon in Salt Lake City.

State Rep. Carl Wimmer, a Republican running for Congress, was outraged by the choice and called instead on Holder to be removed from office over Fast and Furious. But Shurtleff phoned Holder to reiterate the invitation, calling it “huge” to have the AG at the event.

Shurtleff has an interesting bona fide when it comes to civil rights, one of Holder’s top priorities. He is the author of a biography of Dred Scott, the slave who had lived free in the North and challenged his transfer back into slavery in Missouri. Scott’s lawsuit led to the controversial 1857 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared blacks could not be citizens of the United States, contributing to the tensions that led up to the Civil War.

“I love history and famous legal cases,” Shurtleff said. His biography, titled “Am I Not a Man?” is “really the history of America from 1800 to the start of the Civil War,” he said.

Shurtleff signed a copy of the book for Holder during a visit to Justice Department headquarters in 2011 to receive an award for protecting children. During that event, he invited Holder to speak at the Human Rights Commission luncheon.

An Obama administration role?

A cancer survivor, Shurtleff says he intends to work in the private sector when he leaves office at the end of this year, including becoming a partner at a national law firm. He said he’d likely be involved in government relations, consulting and potentially lobbying.

He also intends to campaign for Utah Compact-style immigration reform nationally. He has worked with several immigration groups, including the National Immigration Forum, ImmigrationWorks, Paternership for a New American Economy and Migration Policy Insititute. Shurtleff will serve as a volunteer board member for the National Immigration Forum after he retires as attorney general.

Burbank, the political science professor, said on the whole, Shurtleff’s tenure will be seen positively.

“When he was first elected, there was a bit of a question mark because there were a number of Republicans who didn’t like the fact that he had this independent streak. Early on it was clear that he wasn’t a traditional Republican,” Burbank said. “Others said, ‘We are a red state and we should elect people who follow the Republican party.’

His buck-the-party praise of Holder, a close friend of President Barack Obama, could be interpreted more transactionally. Is he angling for a job in the administration if Obama is re-elected?

“I would consider it,” Shurtleff said. “I believe very strongly if you’re asked to serve on a national basis, you serve.”

This does not mean he’s abandoning the Republican Party, he said. Rather, he’s hoping to change it.

The most extreme conservatives “are not being rational,” Shurtleff said. “Ultimately I think we’re going to be successful in turning the attitude of the Republican Party around.”

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