Former Speaker Becky Lockhart Dies from Rare Neurological Disease

Former House Speaker Becky Lockhart, 46, has died, her family said on Saturday.

Lockhart passed away at her Provo home surrounded by family members after contracting a rare neurological disease. She was hospitalized briefly a week ago, and that is when word of her critical condition was passed on to the media after an email went out to Utah lawmakers announcing her illness.

Lockhart’s illness was a shock to Utah’s political community. She was seen in public and in good spirits just weeks ago, although close friends told leading legislators that she had complained of dizziness and weakness before her condition quickly worsened.

She officially left office Dec. 31 and in the November House GOP caucus told colleagues that she planned on working right up until her term ended.

Lockhart is survived by her husband Stan, a former chairman of the Utah Republican Party and lobbyist for the Layton-based Micron computer chip manufacturer, three children, Hannah, Emily and Stephen; her parents Jerald and Gretchen Tower, and four siblings, Carrie Castillo, Lara Millington, Matt Tower, and Sam Tower.

She is a graduate of Brigham Young University with a nursing degree, but had not practiced for some years.

Becky and Stan Lockhart early in their marriage became active in local Republican Party politics.

The start of her elective life started as a challenge, and it became a trademark of Lockhart that she was a fighter who worked hard for her beliefs.

When the then-longtime GOP House member from her Provo district had to resign because he had moved out of the area, Becky was the choice of most of the district’s GOP delegates to replace him.

But under the law at that time – 1996 – the delegates had to send up several names to the governor, who would then appoint the replacement until the next general election.

Then-Gov. Mike Leavitt didn’t select Lockhart, but a retired police chief known to the governor.

House members were not happy about that, believing the local choice should be honored. So GOP legislators changed the law, saying that only one name would be sent up to the governor in cases of a mid-term legislative vacancy.

Lockhart then defeated the incumbent Republican in the 1998 elections and won re-elections easily from then on.

Becky moved rather quietly through the legislative ranks and really burst upon the scene in 2010. She was then assistant majority whip, the lowest elective member of leadership.

She ran against well-known Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, and surprised most political watchers by beating Clark for the 2010 speakership race by one vote in the GOP House caucus.

She easily won re-election as speaker in 2012 and in 2013 announced she would not run for speaker again and would retire from the House the end of 2014.

Becky was clearly looking at higher office in recent years.

House speaker traditionally gives an opening address the first day of each general session, and Lockhart took her opportunity in 2013 and in 2014 to criticize the governance of an old personal friend, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.

In fact, Lockhart was moving so quickly on various fronts to establish herself as a viable gubernatorial candidate for 2016 that Herbert moved up his planned re-election campaign announcement – a clear attempt to lock up some support before Lockhart could lure some GOP heavy-hitters from his camp.

In the 2014 Legislature Lockhart suggested a huge education reform measure – spending upwards of $300 million over several years to get a computer or tablet in the hands of every public education student in the state, along with education software and teacher training.

While backed by her House GOP caucus, Herbert and some GOP senators balked. Herbert at one point threatened to veto any spending on Lockhart’s plan over $30 million for the next fiscal year.

The GOP Senate offered even less money. And eventually Lockhart withdrew her program, saying she would work on later when she was outside of the Legislature – another hint toward future office aspirations.

She surprised a number on Capitol Hill when last summer she put her name in for consideration for the open post of state superintendent of schools, despite the fact she had not worked as a teacher and had no formal educational administration experience.

The State School Board did not pick Lockhart as one of its superintendent finalists.

While she did a lot of work on transportation and education over the years, both in and out of the speakership, perhaps her most lasting legacy will be her leadership in the case of disgraced Utah Attorney General John Swallow.

Swallow and Lockhart got to know each other when both served in the Utah House.

But as news reporters swirled in late 2012 and into 2013 about alleged misconduct by Swallow and his predecessor Mark Shurtleff, Lockhart lead the House GOP caucus to set up a special investigation committee.

Since Shurtleff was out of office, the committee could only investigate sitting AG Swallow.

Some in the House GOP caucus didn’t want to spend the money or rock the boat. But Lockhart stood firm, saying a number of times that the Utah House had to do its constitutional duty in investigating the AG.

Swallow actually resigned before the committee – which spent around $4 million in outside counsel and investigators – finished its work.

But the House report said Swallow had hung a “for sale” sign on the attorney general’s office as Swallow, now charged with 12 felonies and awaiting trial, destroyed evidence and sought political contributions for favors in law enforcement. (Swallow denies any wrongdoing.)

Lockhart left office just weeks ago like, admired, even loved, by her Capitol Hill colleagues, many of whom over the last weeks have expressed shock and sympathy for her sudden illness, and now death.