Part 1 Sean Reyes: Where I Come From and the Journey to Attorney General

Sean Reyes Blog

Sean Reyes is currently serving as Utah’s Attorney General. In 2013, after the resignation of Attorney General John Swallow, Sean was appointed as the Attorney General by Governor Gary Herbert. He took office on December 30, 2013. He is currently serving his third term as Attorney General.

Stan was a Big Brother and Mentor to Sean

Sean Reyes is a special guest, longtime friend and prominent elected official in the state, our Attorney General. I started out the show by asking him to talk a little bit about how long we’ve known each other.

Sean said:

“I really owe a lot of my involvement in politics to you, my friend.  I’ve always had an interest in civics, and I have some family history with politics even dating back to other countries.”

“I was so busy with a legal career and serving on nonprofit boards, but I started to get involved when you were the State Party Chair for the Republican Party here in Utah. You were so welcoming and inviting. Your wife at the time, Becky Lockhart, was amazing. Even though we’re almost the same age, you became like a big brother and big sister to me and really got me excited about serving and public service. At the time, I still didn’t imagine myself actually holding office. I was content to be folding flyers and stuffing envelopes and doing whatever I could to try to help the party.”

“You are a great leader. Something I tell people all the time is that you don’t have to hold office or have a particular position to still have an outsized influence, and really make a difference and you, my friend, continued to do that in whatever capacity, you’re serving.”

Grateful to Lockhart Family

Sean said, “Let me just thank you once more for you and your family. I remember when I first ran for office, I recruited some of your kids to help me and they were so diligent out there, putting up signs, and helping even though no one had heard of me outside of the legal community. And, name recognition is one of those things that you strive really hard to achieve. Your family, you, and Becky. Gosh,I wish we had time to reminisce if I could, if you’ll give me just one personal indulgence, out of dozens of stories that I could share one.”

Buses Breaking Down in Tampa

Bus driving on road

“I believe we were in Tampa? And the buses broke down. But here we are all coming back from the first night of the convention, all fired up, all eager and excited. And tall the buses break down, and it was a nightmare. A total debacle and we were grounded for four hours or so, sitting there. People are getting hot because the AC is off, they’re cranky and it’s warm in Florida in the late summer, early, early fall.”

“And I remember, Becky and I sort of spontaneously just started air banding. We were just singing songs. We were pretending to lip sync to different songs. Pretty soon, our whole bus got into the spirit of it, and boy, the time just passed. When we got back everyone else was complaining about what a miserable experience it all was, and we were all laughing and joking and become even closer to those on our bus.”

Coming Together

“It’s those moments even more than the grand policy decisions or the elections, it’s just those moments of coming together, and remembering that we’re all part of the same human family. Sometimes it’s with members of our party; often, it’s with members of other parties, and just coming together as human beings. I just remembered that it’s what made you and Becky such great leaders, that you can take very difficult troubling situations and kind of turn them around. It was a lot of fun.  I don’t know if you’ll end up editing that out because I don’t know how much time we have on the program, but I hope there’s room for it because it really gives your listeners a little bit of a glimpse into who you are as a person. Fun, spontaneous, but a great leader, and the party was in such good hands, at that time.”

Lockhart Glare

I had to ask Sean if he ever was the recipient of Lockhart Glare from Becky.

Sean said, “Yes. I tried not to, but when you work together as much as we did it would happen, especially when I was the ‘AG,’ and she was Speaker. I for sure saw it aimed at folks like our mutual friend Wade Fairway, but I think I might have been on the other end myself I might have earned one of those, or two.”

I shared that I still get people who were on the receiving end of that Lockhart glare that had mentioned it to me from time to time. I tell them, look, I woke up every day trying to figure out how I could get that glare at least once during the day.

Sean said, “That makes sense because when you got the glare you knew she was focused on you right? Because she was so busy, a million other pressing things, and I will say this, I would take one of those glares every single day, because the converse of that was that she had such a light about her, and just being in her presence really was a pleasure and a treasure. So having to get stared down once in a while like an NBA player who just dunked on you was worth it just to be around her.”

Growing Up

Reyes Family: Buddy, Annette, Sean, Noreen, and Kyle
Reyes Family: Buddy, Annette, Sean, Noreen, and Kyle
Photo Courtesy of Sean Reyes.

I asked Sean to tell me a little bit about growing up and about how he got involved in politics, what motivated him, to tell us about his family. We would love to hear about his wife and kids, and to just have him give us a little overview of where he come from, and where he is at today.

Sean’s Dad, Norberto “Buddy” Reyes

Sean said, “Well gosh it’s hard to do that, succinctly. Stan, you’ve met my dad, Norberto Reyes. Hee just passed this last year, he was one of my great heroes. He was an amazing person, and he was born in the Philippines.”

President Magsaysay

“And really, it was interesting because his uncle, Ramon Magasaysay, was at one point the President of the Philippines. He had served in Congress as Secretary of Defense, rose to the ranks of President, and was well-beloved, still is. I can’t tell you how many people around the world, when they find out that I’m related to President Magsaysay says, stop. I’ve had people drop to their knees and people genuflect and it’s kind of embarrassing and overwhelming, but he was that great of a leader.”

“I heard stories about him all the time, growing up, kind of an everyday, blue-collar worker who ascended to the presidency. He opened up the Malacañang White House Palace to anyone who wanted to come and meet with him, and so there were peasants and people from the provinces that would come every day, and that was really part of a golden era of the Philippines in the 1950s.”

Singing Career

Buddy Reyes dressed as Elvis performing at an event.
“Buddy” Reyes Performing as Elvis
Image Courtesy of Sean Reyes Family

 “My dad grew up in that oversized shadow, and kind of wanted to make a name for himself. His uncle was his godfather and he lived there at Malacañang Palace with him for a time. My dad taught himself how to play the guitar. He’d been kicked out of some choirs and was determined and ended up having a successful career. He sounded so much like Elvis Presley that Bob Hope discovered him and took him on USO tours with him. My dad had his own radio show and TV show.”

Artist & Movie Producer

“My dad was also an artist, a self-taught, picture, artist and painter. He became so proficient at painting that in his early 20s, he was selected by the Holy Father Pope of the Catholic Church to be his personal artist. So my dad painted portraits and pictures of the Pope that hung in the Vatican and still do. By his mid-20s also, he was a movie producer for MGM studios. This is a really talented young man who had enough at that time to buy three homes for his 10 brothers and sisters and his parents.”


“He was also an ambitious young politician at the time. I say politician purposely, because politics at times can be selfish and people are asking, what can this particular position or title do for me? How does it serve my interests and ambitions? When really they should be asking the opposite question. Public servants like you, Stan, like Becky was, don’t ask what the position can do for them, but what they can do and how they can serve that position, and the people that it represents.”

“So my Dad saw someone running for office in the Philippines and was upset about it. So my dad coming from the tradition of a statesman, and a public servant with his uncle was so appalled by the ambition of this young senator, that he campaigned against him. That Senator won the presidency of the Philippines and my dad still was outspoken.”

Threatened for Speaking Up

“So then, the President’s strong-arm thugs came to my dad with guns pointed at his head on a couple of occasions and said, ‘Look, we’re all part of the Philippine aristocracy, we’re on the same team. Look at all that you have if you just shut up. We don’t want to kill the nephew of the former president, but if you keep opening your big mouth, we’re going to. Next time we’re going to shoot.’”

Sent to the United States for his Safety

“And to his credit, my dad stood up for what he believed. So much so that he had to leave the Philippines. In the middle of the night, in the late 1960s, his aunt, the former first lady helped him prepare for a trip. He was going to go as an artist and visit the United States. But it got expedited when she found out that he was going to be executed the next day. She got him on a plane with a one-way ticket.”

“He knew nobody, had no money in his pocket. He often joked, ‘People say I had $10 coming to this country or $50 in my pocket’ and he said ‘I had pocket lint. I had nothing.’ He landed in Los Angeles, and there wasn’t a way back home. He had asked his aunt, ‘When do I come back, how long is this trip?’ She said, “You never come back while Ferdinand Marcos is the President of the Philippines. He’ll kill you as soon as you come back. He’ll probably kill you in the states but at least we have a better chance to protect you there.”

Standing Up for What You Believe In

“That started the journey for my dad. I’m taking so long on this one little story, but it’s such a big loss for me this last year and he was so much of the reason that I ended up going into politics or civics or public service in the first place.”

“He taught me growing up about standing up for what you believe in, in principle. I think a lot of people talk about it but actually putting your life on the line and demonstrating it the way that he did was always such a powerful story for me and motivation. He would say, ‘Son, I don’t think Americans realize how blessed they are. And when I share his story, I remind people about how great America is, we are a great light to nations not because we’re inherently better, as Americans, not because we’re inherently stronger or more deserving, we’re just more blessed with opportunity. I think we too often take it for granted. That was my dad’s reminder always growing up.”

“His other encouragement was, ‘Son wherever you can, serve, whether it’s at the school level, the local level, whatever.’ I don’t think at the time he was thinking state or federal or anything else. But it was a focus on service, and he lived a life of service and the American dream. He literally made a comfortable life for our family out of nothing. We started in the mean streets of LA. and little by little, was able to pull us up, just by kind of force of will.”

Strong Family Focus on Politics from Both Parents

“You asked about my start into politics, I think I was born into it. My dad’s family was mostly Democrats and my mom’s family was surely almost all Democrats from Hawaii. She was a strong powerful warrior, Native Hawaiian, and Japanese. Dad was Filipino and Spanish. I have Chinese extraction from both sides I believe. Mom was a public-school educator and a fierce and strong Asian tiger mom. But the two of them together, they raised me.”

Start in Politics at 1 Year’s Old in Richard Nixon Pajamas

“My dad dressed me up when I was one year old, I have pictures to prove it, in Richard Nixon pajamas, that was the ‘72 cycle. I don’t think there really was such a thing as Richard Nixon pajamas. It was my white onesie and he had slapped a bunch of bumper stickers on me. He paraded me around downtown Westchester and Inglewood, which, if I think about now is probably child endangerment. I don’t want to tarnish his legacy, but he was so proud of living in this country and having a family.”

Importance of Hard Work

 “He was really upset with a lot of his friends in that area because many of them said ‘Buddy, why are you working three or four jobs? You’re killing yourself, and you’re making less than what we do not working any jobs. There’s this thing called welfare, and it’s awesome. If you get on it and you can stack it, there’s so many different programs and systems, you really don’t have to work.’

“And he was fronted, it was visceral for him. So I think this was his protest. In a very Democratic demographic he marched me around. He was a devout Republican and loved President Reagan. I just remember being around that my entire life. Although I never caught the bug to be as active as I am now in politics and civics.”

Interest in Public Service

“I love the Constitution; I went to Valley Forge as a junior in a program where we visited many of the founding locations and documents of our great nation and it really inspired me, and it was one of the things that led me to a practice in the law.”

“I loved standing up for people like my dad. He was a small business owner, going up against some business titans and being able to represent people like that, and so I started my career in law, pivoted to helping run a venture fund, along the way. Business, technology, innovation, I loved all those things.”

Getting into Politics

“Some things weren’t exactly right in the Office of the Attorney General, and my predecessors ran into some problems. Without really thinking about it, I started to get involved and, it was really you Stan that got me into it.”

“I’m going to go back now. In 2008, we were in Minnesota, and you were the chair. I was helping Governor Huntsman at the time, a great American who really inspired me. He gave me my first real shot in politics.”

“Through Governor Huntsman and your help, I found myself in a convention.  I met Mark Shurtleff there, he talked to me about what an attorney general does. I had no idea and I said, ‘Why would anybody want to do that, Mark? I mean, you don’t make any money, you put so many hours in, it’s dangerous, you have to go up against cartels and all that.’ I thought, man, it’s a good thing somebody else is willing to do that.’

“But that’s when I first really started to get involved in campaigns and working in 2008. It was so much fun, I mean running races in the dome there, Governor Herbert who was lieutenant governor at that time running against Marco Diaz and running, I mean, just a lot a lot of fun.”

“Lo and behold after a few years, when things weren’t going so well in the office, Mark indicated that he wasn’t going to run again, and another individual was sort of tapped or coronated to be his successor. Many people were upset about that, they were looking for people to run and I was with them. I thought maybe there needs to be a change. But again, who’s going to be dumb enough to do that? I mean running against that machine, they’re so well established, such great name recognition, and so much money; that’s a fool’s errand.”

“Then when you win the prize, so to speak, then you’re stuck there in office, and it’s like volunteering for a nonprofit board, but you just do it every day, and get paid a fraction of what at the time I was making.”

Decision to Run

“I was convinced by individuals including you to think about it. You said, ‘Sean, I think you have a chance to contribute.’ So did my mom and dad. I spent about a year and a half, almost two years going up and down the state, 29 counties before I made an announcement. I wanted to talk to people and see if I really was a good fit.”

“My approach to politics or coaching or anything else is that if there’s somebody better, you probably let them go do it.  But all things being equal, if you can help and contribute, then take your turn, and throw your hat in the ring.”

“And after two years of talking to people about their dissatisfaction with what was going on in many areas, I thought I could improve on or enhance or bring new ideas to, I made the fateful decision to run. I made the announcement, back in 2010 to run in 2012. I put two years of my life into running and then lost in 2012. I thought well the universe or God, or both have sent me a pretty strong message that maybe that this isn’t where I was intended to go.”


Election Like MMA: Just Not Meant to Be

“It was kind of like years before when I thought I fancied myself a good mixed martial arts fighter. I was fighting MMA before there was a UFC. I was getting trained by some of the best like Pedro Sauer, and Mark Schultz who were legends. We were there in your neck of the woods, Stan, in Utah County. The Bowen Leavitt Insurance Company out in Lindon and before that World’s Gym, and then I was winning tournaments. I was good, mainly because nobody else at the time knew Brazilian jujitsu. Then once all the real fighters and athletes started to pick it up and learn it, I started to get my head caved in and bashed in, literally. I have a plate holding up one side of my face still.”

“And my dear wife who’s so wise and so patient with me, she says, ‘I think you ought to consider law school, instead of this fighting thing. You’re going to last a lot longer and probably be more successful.’ There are those inflection points in your life. Well, here I was, I thought the universe was saying, ‘Nice try, I think your company needs you.’ And I went back to the private sector, focused on building companies and buying and selling companies and we were killing it, we were doing so well with accelerated ventures.”

Opportunity and Making the Decision

“Then less than a year later, my predecessor resigned from his position as Attorney General for the state of Utah, and the governor was going to appoint somebody. I think at the time about 12 people initially decided, hey I want to throw my hat in the ring. There would be, the state central committee would choose who the new three people to go to the governor, much like right now we’re looking at the governor picking up a successor for David Damschen who just retired as our state treasurer.”

“I didn’t really want to do it, but I prayed a lot about it. I felt like I still had a lot to contribute. I talked to you, and some others, about whether you thought it was a good idea and you were all very supportive.  I tossed my hat back in the ring. Lo and behold, pretty soon I was in that three-some of names that went up to the governor. Then pretty soon it was down to two, according to the Governor. I probably would have chosen the other guy if I were the Governor. He is an amazing, two-star Army General, and had been in the office for a long time, and about a solid a public servant as you’ll ever meet kind of general, Brian Tarbet.”

“The governor took a chance on me. Governor Herbert, I’ll always appreciate him greatly for doing that. I immediately said, ‘I want Tarbet to be with me. And Brian did and together we really started to put the pieces back together for a lot of problems that the public didn’t see and may never know about but that was significant.”

Making Changes in the AG Office

“It wasn’t just kind of cleaning out the cupboards. There was some toxic mold and there was a lot of it and we had to totally renovate the entire kitchen, pull the whole thing apart”

” I’ll give you just one quick example, people never hear about this stuff, but here I was, I came from a tech background, I’d represented a lot of tech companies. On my first day as a GE, I see the secretary, she’s on a Word Perfect platform. I asked, ‘What, what are you doing with that?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, this is our email system.’  I said ‘Word Perfect? I represented them when I was a young lawyer in Novell, in the late 1990s, but the rest of the world has moved on to Word, like there’s no one else on Word Perfect.’ And she said, ‘Really, oh my gosh.’

“That in a microcosm, was sort of just indicative of everything about the agency’s office no document database system, no case management system, and no annual reviews with employees to give feedback or to hold them accountable.”

“I just, I was shocked and from the beginning, relied on friends like you, called you several times, called Becky to say, ‘What did I get myself into?’ If I would have known the depth of some of these challenges, I wouldn’t have put my name back in here, the Governor, if he knew, sure didn’t tell me all that was going on.”

Busiest Year of His Life: Special Election, Legislative Session, and Supreme Court Cases

“We were dealing with three constitutional cases, one of which was called the case of our lifetime. They were all headed to the United States Supreme Court, and I needed to take the helm immediately. I was writing before I was even sworn in, because the Governor had told me that I would be appointed and then sworn in. It was so hard because at the same time a legislative session started. Thank goodness Becky was there, so, at least I wasn’t totally caught off guard. And simultaneously, I had to run for re-election in a special election.”

“On December 30th I took the oath of office. Then on January 1st, after a New Year’s celebration with my family for a couple hours, I went back to the office. I started the re-election and the legislative session a few weeks later.”

Supreme Court Cases

“The Federal District Court had struck down our laws on immigration and our laws banning polygamy, which is ironic because that’s what had kept us out of statehood for so long. And now, the ban on polygamy was partially struck down.  Then our ban, like dozens of other states at the time that had constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, had also been struck down as unconstitutional. All of those three critical issues were headed to the Supreme Court. We didn’t have them all really staffed with the teams that needed to be there.  I had to recruit, pull people in, convince folks to come into work in my administration really without any time.”

“I had no preview that I was going to get appointed it was, ‘You’re in.’ Governor said, ‘I heard you used to play sports in college, played basketball in high school, college level. Heard you like to take the last shot, that the pressure shot, well here’s your shot. You’re going to be appointed, you’re going to have to get a stay from the United States Supreme Court on this case, you’re going to have to draft the supreme court brief, you’re going to have to put together a team.’ I said, ‘Governor, I don’t have a chief of staff. The only person I’ve been able to talk to is Brian Tarbet.’ ‘Thank goodness,’ he said. ‘Well good luck. I’m on the other side of the rotunda. Holler if you need me.” And I didn’t know how to turn the lights on.”

Good You Can Do in Public Service

“If people want to know what public service is like, that’s a good glimpse into coming into a situation. And now almost eight years later, I have to say it’s been a ride of a lifetime.”

“We’ve given up a few things and a few comforts. But the people that I’ve met, the children that we’ve saved, the families that we’ve protected, the laws that we’ve defended, and so much of the policy we’ve done is amazing. Literally, again, this is not political, it’s not Republican or Democratic, it’s humanitarian. I’m so grateful that my job, maybe more than any other job in public service other than perhaps a firefighter, or a police officer, or schoolteacher, is not a partisan one. I’m not a policy maker. Even laws that I don’t agree with, I am constitutionally required to defend.  I have a clear mandate, I defend those laws, with everything that I have, even if I didn’t pass those laws. But 90% of my job as State AG, I work with Democrats, friends, and colleagues at the federal, state, local, county tribal level, to protect people.”