The Soap Opera History of the Woman Trying to Hold the GOP Together

The chair of the convention’s rules committee starred in a major 1990s political drama.

RNC rules committee chairwoman and former Utah Rep. Enid Mickelson, with her ex-husband Joseph Waldholtz in 1994.AP Photo/Steve Wilson

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When the Republican National Convention’s rules committee convenes Wednesday to debate the parameters for selecting the party’s candidate for president, moderating the chaos will be Enid Greene Mickelsen, the committee’s chair, whom the National Review recently described as “a little-known, Sunday School-teaching grandmother from Draper, Utah.”

Mickelsen, though, is far more than a Mormon granny. Utahns will always remember Mickelsen as Enid Greene Waldholtz, a woman responsible for the state’s biggest and perhaps most embarrassing political scandal of the last 30 years. Her selection as the powerful moderator between the pro- and anti-Trump forces spoiling for a fight at the GOP convention represents a remarkable comeback for a woman who left Washington in disgrace in 1996 after blubbering through a nearly five-hour press conference about love and betrayal that capped her brief career as a member of Congress. 

In 1993, Mickelsen was a rising star in the Republican Party. An aggressive and acerbic corporate litigator, Mickelsen was dubbed the “Mormon Margaret Thatcher” by the Economist. She’d lost a congressional race in 1992, but in 1994 she tried again, in what would become the most expensive House race in the country that year. She tried to soften her image, and with a last-minute $1 million infusion of funds into her campaign for an advertising and direct-mail blitz, she came from behind to defeat incumbent Democrat Karen Shepherd.

Utahns will always remember Mickelsen as Enid Greene Waldholtz, a woman responsible for the state’s biggest and perhaps most embarrassing political scandal of the last 30 years.

Mickelsen came into the House at a propitious moment. Led by Newt Gingrich and his “Contract with America,” Republicans took their first House majority in 40 years. A large number of GOP women were in that freshman class, including Mickelsen, a lifelong Republican activist.

In a preview of her job this week, Mickelsen quickly made a name for herself by securing a seat on the House Rules Committee, the first time in 70 years that a freshman had made such a move. Her celebrity increased when she later announced she was pregnant and became the second woman ever to give birth while serving in Congress.

Not long after the birth of Mickelsen’s daughter, federal investigators started asking questions about all the money that had flowed into her campaign at the last minute. There were reports of bounced campaign checks, unpaid credit card bills, and stiffed vendors. At the center of the investigation was Mickelsen’s campaign treasurer, who was also her husband, Joseph Waldholtz.

Waldholtz, a non-Mormon man five years younger than Mickelsen, had convinced her that he was independently wealthy. The Washington Post reported in 1995 that Waldholtz had never shown her his house in Pittsburgh because he claimed to be embarrassed by its opulence. In fact, before he moved to Salt Lake City to court her, he’d been living in Pittsburgh with his parents, who had no family trust fund, as Waldholtz had claimed. But Mickelsen apparently didn’t know that. They’d married a few years earlier, in an over-the-top political spectacle of a wedding officiated by former Utah Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt.

Initially, Mickelsen blamed her campaign finance problems on thieves who she claimed had stolen Waldholtz’s checks and credit cards and run up all those unpaid bills. Waldholtz promised to straighten it all out. One day in November 1995, as investigators were closing in, Waldholtz went to the airport with Mickelsen’s brother-in-law, Jim Parkinson, promising to meet with representatives from his family trust fund who’d explain everything. While waiting at the airport for the supposed representatives to show up, Waldholtz told Parkinson he had to go make a phone call. He never came back. Waldholtz had gone on the lam. He turned himself in to federal authorities six days later.

It turned out that the cash injection into Mickelsen’s campaign had been part of nearly $4 million that Waldholtz embezzled from Mickelsen’s father, $1.8 million of which he dumped into her campaign through an elaborate network of phantom donors. Waldholtz had forged his wife’s signature on checks, used campaign funds to pay for personal expenses, and neglected to report other illegal donations.

In December 1995, Mickelsen gave a legendary press conference, running nearly five hours, in which she declared, “Everything I’d known about Joseph Waldholtz, who I’d loved and trusted, was a lie.” The press conference was riveting, and unparalleled. The late, great Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory described it like this:

Ms. Waldholtz, a black-eyed, bushy-haired freshman favorite of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, wept copiously in the first few hours of her long confession, but later put a sock on the sobbing, and geared down to sniveling. In quavering breaths, she has given us the ultimate confession of the confessing ’90s. She even told us how her husband lied not just about his religion but about his assets and his cooking, and how she took painkillers after the Caesarean birth of her daughter and so didn’t give the proper attention to a false document he waved by her…Unwary viewers who tuned in late and began listening to her lachrymose account of misplaced love and trust, of seduction, betrayal and abandonment, must have settled in very comfortably.

Mickelsen may have broken the glass ceiling in Utah politics as the Mormon Maggie, but in her personal life, she’d fallen back on the Mormon model of a traditional marriage and deferred most of the decision-making in her life to her con-artist husband. Before the airport drama and press conference, as news of her campaign finance issues began to leak, high-ranking state GOP officials, including the former governor and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), had tried to head off the coming train wreck and staged an intervention to press her to get Waldholtz out of her finances. But she had refused.

“Ms. Waldholtz… wept copiously in the first few hours of her long confession, but later put a sock on the sobbing, and geared down to sniveling.”

The saga of the federal investigation and Waldholtz’s flight from the law played out as a national soap opera for months, as Mickelsen blamed her husband for everything that was wrong with her campaign finances and even went so far as to accuse him of living an “alternative lifestyle.” It turned out he’d been using heroin. He’d defrauded his mother out of her life savings. He’d embezzled money from the Utah Republican Party. In its sentencing memo, the US Attorney’s Office called Waldholtz “a con artist whose continued pattern of fraud and deceit has assumed pathological dimensions.” Waldholtz fought back, in media interviews from his jail cell in Pennsylvania, where he’d been arrested for stealing at least $400,000 from his grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. All in all, it was a tabloid, tawdry affair, shocking even by congressional standards.

Finally, Mickelsen announced she would not seek reelection. Waldholtz pleaded guilty to four counts of tax and bank fraud and campaign finance violations and served 21 months in prison. Mickelsen went back to Utah to regroup and eventually married a former sheriff’s deputy. But she didn’t give up politics forever. She ran, unsuccessfully, for lieutenant governor in 2004. Since then, she seems to have devoted herself to lower-profile roles within the Republican Party, helping run the Utah GOP and serving as a convention delegate for Mitt Romney in 2012.

This week, Mickelsen is suddenly one of the most powerful people in politics, tasked with moderating between the Trump delegates and those who’d like to see the presumptive nominee replaced with someone more palatable. Her job is to help keep a revolt under control, and it’s made that much harder by the hand she’s already tipped: She’s a former backer of Romney, who has publicly refused to endorse Trump, and she has already made her distaste for Trump known. Last month, she said Trump wasn’t a good role model for children.

Her earlier work on the rules committee now dogs her more than her past political scandal. “I think they’ve put that behind them,” says longtime RNC member James Bopp of Mickelsen’s past. “She’s well equipped to handle the job.” The bigger problem for Mickelsen, in his view, is that in 2012, she backed a failed effort to concentrate more power in the top leadership of the party over locally elected delegates, a move Bopp says was the “ultimate power grab by the DC establishment to take over our party.”

Nonetheless, according to National Review, Trump’s people reportedly signed off on Mickelsen’s appointment as committee chief by Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, largely because Trump advisers Paul Manafort and Roger Stone have both known her since she was 18 and the head of the Utah Young Republicans. Mickelsen has shot down suggestions that she might be a tool of the anti-Trump establishment. She told Politico in June, “My mindset is that we’re going to be fair, that people are going to be able to have an opportunity to make their proposals, debate their proposals or suggestions. We are going to make this a fair and deliberative process.”

Still, Mickelsen will be walking a fine line amid concerns that she sides with people who would want to see Trump overthrown as the nominee at next week’s convention. “There is concern that her past actions on the rules committee raise a concern that she may unduly sympathize with the moderate establishment and DC power brokers,” says Bopp. “If I were part of the Trump campaign, which I’m not, I would watch her very carefully.”

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