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Danny Ainge is trying to get his son elected to Congress. Can he do it?

Alex Reimer
August 11, 2017 - 2:12 pm

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge landed prized forward Gordon Hayward in free agency, but his work this summer isn’t done. His son, Tanner, has a congressional race to win.

Tanner Ainge announced his candidacy for the vacant seat in Utah’s third congressional district May 22, days after Republican Jason Chaffetz announced his stunning resignation. Chaffetz, the embattled ex-chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is perhaps best known for leading the prolonged probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email sever while she was secretary of state. He quit his job when President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey in May. 

Two other Republican candidates, Provo mayor John Curtis and former state lawmaker Chris Herrod, are also vying for the seat. The primary election will be held Tuesday. 

The Ainge family has a storied history in Utah. Danny Ainge is the best basketball player in the history of Brigham Young University, capturing the John R. Wooden Award in his senior season. Today, Ainge’s jersey hangs in the rafters of the Marriot Center in Provo, right in the middle of the third congressional district. 

Tanner Ainge, 33, didn’t enjoy moments of athletic grandeur at BYU. But he excelled academically, graduating with an international studies degree in three years. He finished law school at Northwestern in 18 months, before working at an investment firm and in the health care industry. Nowadays, Ainge operates his own consulting business, Ainge Advisory.

Despite his family’s Utahan roots, Ainge didn’t move to the Beehive State full-time until last November. He started dating his wife in high school in Arizona, and married her after he returned from a two-year LDS Church mission in Ghana. Tanner and Heidi Ainge, who have five children, lived in six states –– including New York, Massachusetts and California –– before settling in Utah. They also spent six months in China, where their oldest son was born.

Unsurprisingly, Ainge’s opponents knock him with the carpetbagger charge. In a recent radio debate, Curtis referenced Ainge’s short-lived residence in Utah when striking back against the latter’s criticisms of his governing record. “If you’ve lived in Utah for more than eight months, you would know the mayor of Provo has no ability to raise taxes,” Curtis said.

Perhaps with those attacks in mind, Ainge doesn’t highlight his cosmopolitan background on the campaign trail. When I asked about the lessons he learned from his time in Ghana, for example, Ainge pivoted to a mini-stump speech about the importance of small government. 

“Over the years, I’ve tried to help many people. It’s been my experience that principles and skills and experience and education can help people get on their feet and be self-reliant,” Ainge told WEEI.com in a phone interview. “These are things that non-profit organizations and business do –– they have a much stronger effect than government. That’s been my approach. I’ve been in the business world, and I just believe in the free enterprise system. That’s been my approach in philanthropy –– to help people start business so they can be self-reliant. More government is not the answer.”

Ainge is running on an old-school, boilerplate conservative platform. His campaign’s website talks about the importance of balancing the budget, preserving religious freedom and “ending federal government overreach.” He says we’re heading towards a “day of reckoning,” when our entire federal budget will be spent on nothing but interest on our national debt and entitlement programs. 

“If we keep spending the way we are, and let our debt continue to climb the way it is, then there’s going to be a day of reckoning,” he explains. “I don’t want that to happen in my lifetime; I don’t want that to happen in the lifetime of my five kids. So, this desire to jump in and fix this with a sense of urgency is what drove me into politics.”

It’s fair to say Ainge’s politics don’t match up with the liberal Massachusetts electorate. Still, that hasn’t stopped Danny Ainge from supporting his son’s candidacy with vigor. The Celtics legend appeared Monday at a fundraiser in Utah, where attendees got to dunk him in a pool of water for $25 as payback for signing Hayward away from the Jazz. 

Prior to the start of free agency, Tanner Ainge tried to recruit Hayward to stay in Utah, alerting him of Massachusetts’ new “millionaire’s tax.” Despite the backlash Hayward faced for signing with the Celtics, Ainge says it hasn’t impacted his candidacy. “I always knew people could separate sports from what they cared about when they were voting,” he said.

In addition to emotional support, Danny Ainge has backed his son financially –– big time. Danny and Michelle Ainge have pledged $250,000 to a pro-Tanner political action committee, Conservative Utah, as well as $2,700 to his campaign (the maximum donation allotment). The Conservative Utah PAC has inundated the state with negative ads about Ainge’s opponents, chastising them for supporting tax increases. 

Both Curtis and Herrod have criticized Ainge for using his family’s money. “I had no idea I was running against Danny Ainge,” Herrod said in the radio debate this week. “(The contributions are) “not Utah money. (They’re) primarily from Boston.” 

Danny Ainge told Desert News this week he has no control over the way Conservative Utah spends his money. He was unavailable to comment for this article.

Tanner Ainge told WEEI.com he’s grateful for his parents’ support, and doesn’t have any qualms about the money they’ve spent to help. “It’s been incredible. My mom is going door-to-door, every day, and every time there’s a public area –– whether it’s a parking lot or parade, anywhere she goes –– she’s handing out fliers and saying, “Go vote for Tanner,” he explained. “She’s been incredible. My dad has been incredibly supportive as well. So it’s been good to have family support in such a chaotic campaign.”

One-time vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has emerged as Ainge’s other high-profile surrogate, touting his business background in robocalls.  “We don’t need any more career politicians in Washington. We need political outsiders –– real patriots,” the former Alaskan governor says in the call. “He’s a true conservative. He’s going to uphold the constitution. He’s going to protect our rights –– the rights of our states, and the right to bear arms.” 

Despite his family’s money and Palin’s backing, a new poll this week shows Ainge trailing both of his opponents with 15 percent of the vote. Curtis leads the pack with 31 percent.

Dennis Romboy, a reporter for the Desert News who’s profiled Ainge, says Ainge’s surname remains his biggest asset. “I think his name is taking him a long way,” Romboy said. “If he were just ‘Tanner Smith’ and he were just another guy espousing these same Republican principles, I don't think he really would've gone anywhere.”

The Celtics may have come out as winners this offseason. But if Tanner loses his congressional race, the summer will end with a bitter taste for the Ainge family. 

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