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The Tax Man

Playing Robin Hood for Utah's schools is only the latest puzzle passionate nerd Matt Frandsen is trying to solve.



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An Unreasonable Man
Activist and watchdog Steve Erickson, a member of Frandsen’s tax coalition, recalls being the “tax policy guy” in the late ’80s and early ’90s for local nonprofit Utah Issues, a progressive anti-poverty group. “It was frustrating enough that I decided to do something else,” Erickson says. “Progress is slow around here for a progressive. But Matt has certainly tilted at the windmill, and you’ve got to admire guys that do that.”

Tilting at windmills has played a role in Frandsen’s personal life as well. In fact, it was at a 2001 protest of the Free Trade of the America Areas conference in Philadelphia where Frandsen met his wife, Michelle.

“He’s very sincere and very earnest in his desire for economic justice,” Michelle, now divorced from him, says. Tax reform, she says, was a natural fit for Matt because he likes complex puzzles. “He really likes the idea of large systems and how you can affect them by tweaking some of the elements. That’s why the tax code has become so much of a focus for him.”

Michelle says it wasn’t his pursuits that divided the marriage. “He’s a great father and great husband, but as he got sick, his Parkinson’s really took so much of his effort and focus. He felt like the marriage really strained him.”

In 2007, Matt initiated the divorce, largely, he says, because of the guilt of burdening his wife with caring for his worsening condition.

Still, the couple enjoys a family life, Michelle says, proudly noting that their daughter Sophie still draws pictures of the family together.

Michelle even picks up on Matt’s influence in conversations she has with her daughter. “She talks about the economy in her own way,” Michelle says. “She’ll say: ‘You know, Mommy, your money’s gonna be bad one day, so you should really get some gold.’ That’s totally Matt!” Michelle says with a laugh.

A Beautiful Mind

Frandsen’s earliest memory is lying in a bed or a crib at his parent’s home in Ogden and being watched, from the corner of the room, by a creepy stuffed owl. He can’t say how old he was, but he remembers a very strange feeling.

“I used to have a sensation in my mouth of something expanding like the universe,” Frandsen says. “As I went to sleep at night, [there was] this incredible, vast emptiness behind my eyes … this expansion. Which is weird, right?” Back then, maybe. But looking at the expanse of roles Frandsen has played and his varied escapades, it may have just been his future adventures welling up inside him. From scientist to outdoors adventurer to political gadfly, Frandsen has donned many hats—but his latest performance as a professional agitator may have the most personal significance for him.

While Frandsen can count Ralph Nader as his political godfather, it was his real father who instilled in him a desire for justice. “He would hold people to the fire,” Frandsen says. “If he knew something was wrong, he would always confront somebody with it.”

A career architect with a few rental properties, Frandsen’s father kept no distance between a perceived wrong and letting the wrongdoer know their actions were unjust. Whether it was telling neighbors to turn down their music at night, confronting unscrupulous businessmen or even calling out his son on his high school beer drinking, his father never hesitated to right a wrong.

“I really looked up to him because he was pretty just,” Frandsen says, adding that he struggles to challenge injustice as easily as his father.

Ultimately, the strange universe inside Matt Frandsen seems to be set on a collision course with political realities. And it’s one that’s taking a physical toll on the intrepid reformer. “I think Parkinson’s comes from a neurological imbalance of trying to address authority,” he says.

“Personally, I did this tax work because I enjoy hard things,” Frandsen writes via e-mail. “But I also feel the pain, just like a bird that flies into a pane-glass window, when I realize the sudden truth.”

It’s ironic that an almost obsessivecompulsive desire to best obstacles could make one sick—or could even be considered sick behavior—especially when so few are willing to try and change the world.

“Have you ever been hiking, where you go in, like, three miles, turn around and come back out the same trail? Well, when I was a kid, I was always called home. My parents would say, ‘Only go out for an hour.’ Well, I’d get halfway to the peak and realize, ‘Oh, shoot, I’ve got to turn back,’ and then I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just push and go to the top.’ And then I would be three hours late getting back and be in big trouble. I liked to have the adventure but never wanted to turn around and come home,” he says. “It’s powerful stuff.”