A sticky note below Mayor Michelle Kaufusi’s computer monitor reads, “because I said I would.”
Simple. Direct. Confident. Lower-case. A perfect symbol of Provo’s first female mayor, as well as her approach to solving problems and bringing her background of motherhood and neighborhood to the rectangle office.
And she’s also adamant that her five athletic children do what they said they would — even when it meant skipping football for scout camp, a trade-off Michelle always favored because she’s “molding their souls. Football is not who they are,” she says confidently.
But to most of Utah County, the Kaufusi name is synonymous with the game. Michelle’s husband, Steve, played in the NFL in the late 1980s and early 1990s and then coached at BYU for 15 seasons. The couple’s three sons all suited up for the Cougars, and two are on NFL rosters right now — Corbin for the New Orleans Saints and Bronson for the New York Jets.
And yet Michelle has never watched a full BYU football game. She prefers to head home at halftime and get a post-game meal ready. She’s lived a life and filled a home with service to her family and beyond. Even on Christmas Eve, the Kaufusis can be found shoveling nearby driveways instead of trimming the tree.
“If we were home eating hors d’oeuvres, we’d just be fighting because we’re normal like that,” she laughs.
For the past 18 months, the family’s “normal” now includes a mom who has a full-time job outside the home for the first time since becoming a mother.
“The biggest change for them is that the fridge isn’t as full as it used to be,” she says.
Mother Knows Blessed
Michelle’s career timeline is low on the 8-5 and high on the 24/7 of motherhood. She’s quick to acknowledge that raising five kids was the perfect preparation to lead a city of 125,000 who want their water to turn on, their garbage to be picked up, and their roads to be without potholes.
“I wouldn’t be half the mayor I am if I hadn’t had my life experiences,” she says.
The Provo City conference room has 17 chairs, which are usually filled with 16 men and one woman. The first time this room erupted in contention, Michelle had a flashback to Bronson and Corbin fighting over homemade swords in the backyard. The two are now professional athletes, but Michelle still sees them as boys who fought over who broke what sword and who had to give up theirs because of it.
“As I watched the city leaders argue, I thought, ‘I’ve been here before, I’ve walked this territory,’” she says. “I asked them to put all of their thoughts on the table, and then lightbulbs started going off. We started hearing each other and finding solutions. My maternal instincts are truly my biggest asset in this role.”
While Michelle isn’t the stereotypical mayor, she does fit some of the gender stereotypes. Take multitasking, for instance.
“I can’t sit still. I can’t wait for things to get done. Coming in here with a different perspective helps me see what needs to be done — and what’s overdue,” she says.
Michelle says that the city had to get used to having a woman wearing the pants in the city.
“I thank people for everything. I express my feelings regularly. I visit employees in the hospital,” she says. “My negotiation skills tie back to motherhood. I thought my statistics and analytics would be the main skills I would use, but it’s about relationships and being approachable.”
What Michelle brought to the role personally was eventually reflected in the actual office as well. She inherited a room with a mural of stampeding horses on one full wall. The cabinets were dark and she was sitting at a desk that had been brought up from the basement. She didn’t feel right bringing visitors and dignitaries into a masculine office when she was trying to add a feminine touch to her leadership style.
Gatehouse No. 1 helped add literal softness to the office that matched Michelle’s personality, fashion sense and desire to welcome men and women in a happy way.
“I want people to feel like they are in my living room,” she says. “We’re going to come up with solutions together, and that happens more easily when people feel welcome and comfortable. That’s when they open up.”
The first six months in office were difficult for this mother who prioritizes family … and food.
“My family would send texts, ‘You said you could meet us for dinner if we went at 7, and you’re not here yet,’” she says with a cringe. “I don’t do things half-way, so I was completely off balance at first. Mother’s guilt is a real thing, and I try to compensate with things like baking muffins on Saturdays in between city events and scrubbing the kitchen floor.”
But the truth is, it’s been a big change. Her previous working gigs have been part-time and on the side. Now she has a role that involves someone knocking on her door in the middle of the night.
“My son came up the stairs and said, ‘A chief man is on our front porch.’ That was the night an officer was shot in Provo. My kids have seen me experience the worries and make the adjustment to having so much on my plate,” she says.
Have a Ball
Michelle’s kids grew up with athletic expecations on their plates. But she didn’t care if they lived up to them.
“I always told them if they wanted to walk away from sports, I was fine with that,” she says. “But they’ve all gone to college on athletic scholarships. Sports has united us. We are all into fitness, and we work out together when we can.”
Even her youngest children — boy-girl twins — played on every team together until the daughter was too old to play on boy teams. Still, sports was never No. 1.
“I didn’t let my boys leave for the NFL until they handed me their degrees,” she says. “I wasn’t going to have my boys fall under the label ‘dumb jock.’ From the beginning, sports has been in the back pocket. Piano and church trump everything. As a mom, my goal was to fill their toolkits.”
She knew what they would need to truly survive and thrive in the NFL and beyond.
“It’s a short window. For some it’s a chance to make fast money, but then you have a whole life ahead of you,” she says. “I tell my boys to be smart. And they know if I see them wearing it or driving it, I’m going to let them know they’ve messed up! They need to save and invest so their money can stretch as long possible.”
Michelle was on the phone with Corbin the day of our interview, and she asked how practice was going. He’s not used to the humidity in the south — nor the accents.
“The only thing I understand is the ‘F word,’” he told his mom. She told him to hang in there, just like any mother-mayor would say.
A Fan But Not That Kind
Even with two sons playing professional football, she’s not flying around the country watching their games.
“I’m just glad they have a job,” she says.
This fall, however, she’s hit the jackpot as Bronson and Corbin will play each other in a pre-season game in New York, and she’ll be there. As a former NFL wife, she knows the world they are living in.
“These are just little boys in big bodies, and the majority of players come from difficult backgrounds,” she says. “Their NFL experiences are not only theirs but their whole family’s, and they are under a lot of pressure. I tell my boys to talk to everyone and be approachable.”
I’m Still Your Mom
Michelle doesn’t just want a nightly text from her kids saying, “I’m good.” She wants to see them.
“Steve calls it ‘The Check-In.’ About 9 each night, I get on my laptop, and I start calling. Seeing their faces makes it so I can sleep well,” she says. “When they were younger, their dad was gone a lot, so they got a lot of mom in their face. And that hasn’t changed.”
In addition to the FaceTime calls, there’s been plenty of Kaufusi interaction.
“Sometimes I’ll come out of a meeting and there will be 62 new texts on the family group, and 30 of them will be GIFs of cat paws waving,” she says. “My kids love each other. We raised them to go through life together. When one of them got a job at Days Market, then the next one would. At one time, there were three of them bagging groceries.”
The Kaufusis live in a 1960s home with accompanying low ceilings and doorways.
“My kids are in heaven in the city offices with the tall doors,” she laughs.
Once when Michelle was out of town, her son Corbin sent her a picture with his head sticking through a stovetop hood that used to hang above the stove in their kitchen. The boys had regularly hit their head on it and wanted it down.
“It was loose anyway!” the boys told her.
“It’s true. That hood was ugly and it dated our house,” Michelle says. “I get asked if I’m going to fill the hole, but to this day that area of the house is as ugly as can be. But at least it’s one less thing for them to hit their heads on.”
Her five children are close in age and emotion.
“If one of them comes off the football field after making a mistake, they’re going to see it played 10 times in their face,” Michelle says. “They tease and make fun of each other, but they protect each other. Sometimes I tell Steve they don’t even need us. They are the brick and mortar of our family, not me as the mom.”
And the Award Goes to …
Michelle doesn’t prioritize awards or recognition, but she also appreciates non-football trophies. Earlier this year, she was selected as the Informed Decision Maker of the Year by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
“Things are going so fast and there’s always a new problem to solve,” she says.
Problems that have been met with a Kaufusi solution? Parking lawsuit. Convention Center parking problems. Peaks Ice Arena. Maternity/paternity benefits for city employees.
But perhaps the biggest decision Michelle made was one her trusted mentors told her not to: Go out for a bond in her first year. But after walking through the facilities for the fire and police departments, she saw an immediate need to upgrade. She called senators. She called state representatives. She called Congressman John Curtis (her predecessor at the helm of Provo City). Every person warned her not to go out for a bond. “Political suicide,” they called it. She finished her phone calls and sat on her office couch in tears.
“I had 40 minutes before I had to take my decision to City Council,” she recalls. “My deputy mayor came in. Other city employees stuck their heads in. They aren’t used to having a mayor who cries, so they were awkwardly handing me tissues.”
After she gathered her thoughts, she stood up and walked through the city offices with confidence.
“I decided to swing for the fences, and if I fail, I fail,” she says of her decision. “My employees need to know I’m willing to go to bat for them.”
Although Michelle loves the job — and most Provoans love her back — she doesn’t plan to get too comfortable in her Center Street office.
“I want to give it all I’ve got and bring my fresh ideas, but when the city is ready for a change, I’ll move along,” she says.
But for now, she’s working toward 22 flights a day coming in and out of the Provo Airport. (Think Long Beach Airport. Efficient. Convenient.) She’s also excited about a new city hall that will break ground this winter. Perhaps the project she’s most proud of is also the one nobody wants to talk about. The sewer.
“Nobody wants to be the sewer mayor,” she says. “But we’re at capacity. We can’t put band-aids on the problem anymore. The issue has been kicked down the road, and I can’t in good conscience turn away.”
Before Michelle goes to bed at 11ish, she sets out workout clothes and work clothes.
“Being a career woman is a lot of work,” she says. “Nylons are a thing. Matching jewelry is a thing. My sisters were worried about me having the right clothes, so they have given me so many hand-me-downs. I have a jacket section in my closet with every color in the rainbow. And then I have a ton of white shirts. Plus, Spanx loves me!”
Unlike her male predecessors, her constituents comment on what she’s wearing.
“I texted John Curtis and asked how many times people commented on what he was wearing,” she says. “Maybe by the third or fourth female mayor, nobody will care about her clothes. But as of right now, people pay attention.”
Gettin’ the Worm
Michelle’s alarm goes off at 4:30 every morning, which isn’t too painful in the summer when she can hike or run outside. During the winter, the police chief was worried about the mayor running in the dark, and he brought her a police flashlight to clip on.
“He made me promise to wear it every morning so at least I could see where I was going to fall,” she laughs. “I’m super clumsy!”
Michelle loves the mental clarity and fitness that comes from getting the blood pumping before the mind is thumping.
Don’t Make Me Pull Over This City
Michelle’s early mornings prepare her to be the city referee, and she goes into the ring with a sense of humor and zero ego.
“My legal team doesn’t always think I’m funny, but I say things like, ‘We’re going to shut that door and we’re not going to open it until we’ve resolved this,’” she says. “Nobody feels threatened by me. I go in and say, ‘I’m a new mayor. Tell me why we are we having this lawsuit.’”
Then the players explain where it started and what went wrong. The Kaufusi team has solved multiple lawsuits and removed them from the taxpayer’s pockets.
“Every dollar counts to me,” she says.
Hall of Game
Michelle was recently inducted into the Provo High School Hall of Fame. In the presentation, they commented on her academic achievements as well as her leadership accomplishments. They also mentioned how she was the head cheerleader during her senior year.
“For the rest of the night, my kids were trying to touch their toes and tease me. They were just milking it for laughs,” she smiles.
Classic Kaufusi. Competitive. Supportive. Funny. Athletic. And standing tall.
Time and Numbers
The first female mayor of Provo is no stranger to hard work. She gets up at 4:30 every morning, fixes two dinners for her family — one at the normal time, and a late dinner for her hungry athletes, and she reads approximately one book per week. She also returned to college after a 28-year absence to finish a bachelor’s in global studies.
“I always wear a watch and it has to be waterproof because I do a lot of dishes. I always need to know what time it is because time management can make or break a person. Another must-have is my day’s agenda printed on my desk when I come into work. Even though it’s on my laptop and phone, I like a tangible calendar I can take notes on. I have made it a rule to never be on my phone during a meeting, so I like not having to look at my phone to know my schedule.”
“I’m a trail runner — sun, rain or snow. Even if I have an hour, I’ll throw on my snow cleats and head up Rock Canyon and veer off, wrap around the mountain and come down by the Y.”