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Conservative GOP leader has unexpected Democratic fan: Michael Dukakis

Conservative GOP leader has unexpected Democratic fan: Michael Dukakis
Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis speaks with reporters at the Statehouse in Boston on Sept. 9. He has a long-standing relationship with conservative Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah. (Steven Senne / Associated Press)

Rep. Jason Chaffetz is trying to line up all the political support he can right now as he wages an insurgent battle to become the next speaker of the House.

Here's one endorsement the conservative Republican from Utah may not want: Michael Dukakis.

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Yes, that Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential candidate who became the emblem for Massachusetts liberals and card-carrying members of the ACLU.

In an interview two years ago, Dukakis talked about his long-standing relationship with Chaffetz, saying that "Jason had been listening to my precinct-based grass-roots organizing" advice "for years."

At the time, the congressman was not as prominent as he is today, a powerful committee chairman trying to beat Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield in a bid for the top job in the House.

Dukakis described Chaffetz in the 2013 interview as "a comer, I think, on the Republican side."

The two politicians, the conservative from Utah and the liberal from Massachusetts, make one of the oddest political couples in the country. They have a deep, albeit confusing, family connection. Dukakis chuckled as he described it, noting that Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah is among several people who have erroneously described Chaffetz as Dukakis’ stepson.

It's not quite that. But the relationship is close. Dukakis' wife, Kitty, long ago was married to Chaffetz's father, John -- before Jason was born. After Kitty and John Chaffetz divorced and Kitty married Michael Dukakis, the families and their children, stepchildren and half siblings maintained close relationships, Dukakis said.

Dukakis sounded nostalgic and a bit proud in the 2013 interview, which wasn't published at the time. He marveled at Chaffetz's communication skills and called him "very friendly, very outgoing." He reminisced about Chaffetz's youth and career as a college football kicker who helped Brigham Young University win a bowl game in 1988, the same year Chaffetz helped in Dukakis' unsuccessful effort to win the White House.

Chaffetz was a Democrat at the time, Dukakis said, and while a student at BYU served as Utah youth coordinator for Dukakis in the 1988 election.

Later, Chaffetz, who was raised Jewish, would convert his religion and his politics, becoming a Mormon Republican.

Dukakis said news of their relationship tends to come up from time to time in elections, "which I can't say he encouraged."

"This kind of complicated relationship he had with the Dukakises didn't help" in Chaffetz's rather conservative district, Dukakis said.

A spokesman for Chaffetz said the congressman, when asked about Dukakis, called him "a great man who wants good public servants on both sides of the aisle."

"I'm grateful for his help in the past," Chaffetz said.

The two have spoken sporadically in recent years, according to both sides.

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Dukakis, who could not be reached immediately for a follow-up interview, said he had never donated money to Chaffetz.

"Philosophically he's kind of on the other side, although, from time to time you'll see him collaborating with Democrats in the way that other Republicans don't," he said.

"My younger daughter just goes nuts with his policy positions," he added.

Dukakis said Chaffetz used to talk about their relationship more often when he first arrived on Capitol Hill in 2009, but less so since the GOP became more conservative.

"These Republicans would be appalled," Dukakis said.

For more on Congress, follow @NoahBierman.

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