Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis has only been in Congress four months, but already one of his bills is poised to become law.
The House today will vote on legislation the former mayor of Provo, Utah, introduced late last year to help save four species of endangered fish out West (E&E Daily, Dec. 4, 2017).
It’s one of three bills that Curtis, a quietly productive presence around the Capitol, has sponsored so far since being elected in a November 2017 special election to replace Republican Jason Chaffetz as the representative for Utah’s 3rd District.
Curtis isn’t getting any breathing room on the campaign trail either, because he has to run for the seat again this year along with every other House member.
“What’s been a surprise to me is how the legislative priorities are really gelling well,” Curtis told E&E News during an interview in his Washington, D.C., office last month. “I have three bills in, [and] we are getting ready to drop another one, the Emery County bill.”
The Emery County legislation, a priority of the Utah congressional delegation, is still being crafted. It’s aimed at improving public lands management there, and Curtis hopes it will be a model for lands management in other Western communities.
“There will be a large amount of land set aside as wilderness, and yet, we’ve listened to the ranchers to make sure they can graze,” Curtis said. “I think it does a really nice job of acknowledging that people have to making a living off of this land, some people want to recreate in this area, and also we want to preserve and protect.”
The Utah lawmaker said: “Hopefully, we will bring forth a product that will have strong support from stakeholders. Not have the type of controversy we’re seeing with Bears Ears.”
That bill, which Curtis also is shepherding, would codify President Trump’s massive 85 percent reduction to the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, splitting it into two smaller sites (E&E Daily, March 1).
Also included in H.R. 4532, which is still in committee, are plans to add law enforcement personnel to the area, enhance protection of the monument’s historical and cultural artifacts, and ban new mining claims or oil and gas extraction in the site’s original footprint.
Cliff formations at Bears Ears National Monument. U.S. Forest Service
In addition to the uproar over shrinking the size of Bears Ears, the bill has generated complaints from some Native American tribal leaders for its creation of “tribal councils” for each of the new sites.
Critics have argued the councils would largely comprise local and state officials appointed and “cherry-picked” by the Trump administration rather than the tribes themselves.
“We’re trying to do what everybody has asked us to do, and not rush this bill forward and try to get that feedback,” said Curtis, acknowledging that it’s coming along “slowly” and that the legislation is “obviously top of mind every day when I walk in.”
The former salesman and business executive (he was part-owner of Action Target, a firm that manufactures shooting-range equipment) understands the importance of making a persuasive case to skeptics.
As a freshman congressman, he’s already held more than 20 town hall meetings, a format he learned to value as mayor of Utah’s third-largest city.
“A lot of what being mayor taught me is understanding that even though it’s difficult to go stand in front of those people, if you don’t, it’s a lot worse,” Curtis said.
On the controversial Bears Ears legislation, the Utah Republican said he is meeting with “every group that I possibly can” and that “every one of those experiences helps me do a better job with the bill.”
The 57-year-old father and grandfather also chatted with E&E News about air quality in his state, his experience living in Taiwan as a young man, and a fondness for coordinating socks and ties.
What are some of your other legislative priorities with respect to public lands, energy and the environment?
I don’t have any plan yet, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to engage in clear air in Utah. For me, it’s not all legislative, it’s using the bully pulpit.
There’s kind of a weird cultural thing in Utah: Many of the church buildings on Sunday are three blocks from people’s homes, and we kind of joke because a typical family — I have six kids — will take three or four cars to church three blocks away, and then they complain about air quality.
As mayor I tried to play a leadership role in saying: “We all have stewardship and it’s not just about big government, you need to do more. You can’t really demand that if you are driving four cars to church.”
I want to find the same legs underneath me to be a leader, if that makes sense, in the discussion. What do we legislate, how do we educate?
Yes, there are things government should do, there are things business should do, but until individuals take responsibility for this, we’re not going to fix it.
I am obviously a deregulations guy, so I am going to very carefully weave my way through that, but here again there are things that we can do that just have a lot to do with education.
Rural economic development is really important to me. We have a rural broadband bill in, that’s a piece of that and looking for ways to improve the quality of life in those areas.
Do you see better air quality as an area where you could potentially team up with Democrats?
Absolutely. Now, we don’t have any in Utah (laughs). [Curtis is a former Democrat]. You are right, this is a bipartisan issue. This is someplace where we should be in harmony and working together.
You did your Mormon mission in Taiwan. I imagine you learned so much from that.
Can you imagine as a 19-year-old being tossed into an environment like that? I remember, the area I went, there was very, very little Western influence and this was also in the late ’70s. So, you adapt to their culture; it’s not vice versa.
Do you think that experience influenced your career choices?
Absolutely, in a very indirect way. I’ll tell you what it did influence — a skill set of, you’ve got to figure this out. Here you are, you’ve got no parents, no support system, you’ve got to be resourceful. And guess what? If you dig in, you can figure it out.
The Chinese have a word [that] means how they fix things. Our version of it is duct tape and baling wire. Learning that and being out in somewhat of a hostile environment where Christian missionaries are not well-received [was] a tremendous learning experience.
How do you view your role in the Republican caucus?
I am very well-aware that I’m the new guy. And as the new guy, you come in and you earn your spot. My style is to do a lot of listening and very little talking, find ways to help and be a team player, and build respect that way. That’s my goal, to come and earn the respect of my peers.
I know you have a thing where you match your socks and your ties.
Matching is bad; you want to coordinate.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.