Former U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon is leaving both Arizona and politics to accept a top executive position with a telecommunications industry association based in Washington, D.C.
The longtime Mesa resident will leave behind a career that also included a stint as chairman of the Arizona Republican Party from 2005 to 2007, an unsuccessful run for the governor’s office in 2002, three terms in the U.S. House from 1995 to 2001, and two terms in the state Senate from 1991 to 1995.
Salmon earned a reputation in public office as an even-headed statesman who occasionally strayed from a strictly conservative agenda. He obtained nearly legendary status in the U.S. House for leading a revolt against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and for honoring his own self-imposed term limit.
Salmon said he’s comfortable with the idea of moving completely into the private sector. “That suits me just fine. It will be nice to get the target off my back. Being in politics is a great thing and I tremendously enjoyed the time I was able to serve the public, but I’ve given my service and now it’s someone else’s turn,” said Salmon, 49.
He’ll start as president of Comptel in January.
And while he will be out of the political arena, he won’t be far from it. In his new private-sector job, he’ll direct Comptel’s public policy, advocacy and legal sectors. “I’ll have some lobbyists who work for me and I’ll probably do some lobbying myself, but I’ll be the president of the organization,” he said.
Salmon and his wife Nancy, who are empty-nesters with four adult children, will relocate to Washington D.C., ending a 36-year period for Salmon in Arizona, but reconnecting him to the telecommunication industry, in which he worked for 13 years before being elected to Congress.
Salmon said one of the highlights from his work in the public sector was the passage of “Aimee’s Law,” a measure that penalizes states that release rapists, murderers and child molesters who later commit crimes elsewhere. The intent was to prod states to impose life sentences on such criminals.
The law was named after Aimee Willard, a student at George Mason University in Pennsylvania, who was murdered by a man who been released from a Nevada prison after serving 12 years for a previous murder.
“I’ve always been very, very supportive and strong on any legislation that would be tough on child molesters and rapists. It took me two years getting that through the Congress and finally getting it signed by the president,” he said.
Another highlight was his work to obtain the release of U.S.-based academic researcher Song Yongyi from detention in China on spying charges in 2000.
President Clinton had sent Salmon, who speaks fluent Mandarin, to lead a U.S. delegation to meet with Chinese president Jiang Zemin after U.S.-led NATO errantly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.
“I was supposed to only meet with President Jiang Zemin for about 20 minutes, but I went in speaking Mandarin and we ended up meeting for over two hours. He really took a shine to me,” Salmon said.
Later that night, the Chinese president sent an envoy to Salmon’s hotel room to inform him that he had decided to release the researcher after 1½ years in prison as a sign of goodwill.
Rep. Jeff Flake, who succeeded Salmon, said Salmon’s legacy largely is based on his willingness to stand up to Gingrich, the political hardball player and chief architect of the GOP’s “Contract With America.” Then, after Gingrich served as Clinton’s foil during the Monica Lewinsky political-sex scandal, it was revealed that Gingrich had conducted an affair himself.
Plus, the party had suffered serious defeats in the 1998 election and was in disarray.
Days later, Salmon was the first to publicly state that he would not support Gingrich for another term as speaker. Other Republicans fell in line and Gingrich resigned from Congress. The act displayed a tremendous amount of courage, Flake said during a telephone interview from Washington.
“It needed to be done. I think everybody recognized it later. It’s just that Matt was the first one to have the courage to say it,” he said.
“That was a tough thing to do. I recognize it the longer I’m here how tough that is to do — to stand up to your party leaders, particularly one as powerful as Gingrich,” he said.
Secondly, Salmon earned a level of distinction by keeping his term limit pledge and declining to run for a fourth term, Flake said.
Instead, Salmon helped Flake follow him into office and served as his mentor during Flake’s early years. At one time, Salmon considered succeeding Flake, presuming that Flake would stick to his own term-limit pledge. Flake reneged though, and Salmon never sought to regain the office.
Working in a nonpartisan position in Washington will be a welcome change, Salmon said.
“As an elected official, you have to pick either one party or another. I’ll just be really frank — there are a lot of people on the Democrat side that I have a lot of respect for,” he said.
“It’s going to be kind of nice to being more in a position of working with people on solutions, than as the partisans do, try to not solve anything then blame each other when the election comes,” he said.
Gov. Janet Napolitano, the Democrat who narrowly defeated Salmon for the governor’s office in 2002, wished him the “very best of luck” in his new position, said Napolitano’s spokeswoman Shilo Mitchell.
Since leaving Congress in 2001, Salmon was a regular around the state Capitol, lobbying state lawmakers on behalf of a number of clients, most notably Arizona State University. Recently, he has served as state co-chairman of Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, and as campaign chairman for Mesa mayoral candidate Scott Smith.
Salmon has lived in Mesa since he was 12. He earned a bachelor’s degree at ASU in 181 and a master’s degree at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, in 1986.
Matt and Nancy Salmon’s children all live away from home.
Daughters Lara, 26, is married and lives in Cleveland; and Katie, 22, is a nurse in Huntington Beach, Calif. Sons Jake, 25, is married and currently lives in Mesa, though he also plans to move to Washington; and Matthew, 19, is a junior at Arizona State University in Tempe, though he currently is taking a semester of study in Spain.
Comptel represents telecommunications providers and suppliers. It supports competitive communications legislation.
Tribune writer Dennis Welch contributed to this article.