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Leavitt is ‘out’ in rural Utah

Residents upset over monument, Babbitt friendship

SHARE Leavitt is ‘out’ in rural Utah

Former Tropic schoolteacher Clare Ramsay voted for Mike Leavitt in Utah's 1992 and 1996 gubernatorial races.

Back in '92, Leavitt was talking tough about state's rights, health care, Utah's jobs. The 1996 campaign brought more of the same — economic development and concerns Ramsay could sink his teeth into.

But that was before the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Before the largest trade-out of state trust lands in history. Before, Ramsay says, Leavitt began "consorting with the enemy" — in particular, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

So Leavitt didn't get Ramsay's vote this year; GOP challenger Glen Davis did.

Call it a continuation of a year of not paying attention to some rural issues. Or the anger expressed in the May state GOP convention revisited. Whatever it was, last Tuesday in Garfield, Kane and Duchesne counties more people voted for Davis than voted for the governor — and in several other rural counties Leavitt barely won a majority. While Leavitt coasted to a huge victory statewide in winning his third Republican nomination, it still hurts, he says, to see how so many rural Utahns voted.

"Man, he did an about-face on his associations," said Ramsay, 67, who is also a Garfield County commissioner. "I've supported him in the past. . . . But the perception down here is that he's lost touch with his roots. He's gone off on a tangent with Bruce Babbitt and President Bill Clinton."

Leavitt knew some people felt this way. He knew some rural Utahns were madder at him than at any time in the Cedar City native's eight-year stint in office. But Leavitt's repeated fence-mending trips to rural Utah had little effect on sentiments of folks outside the Wasatch Front long aggravated by the governor's stand on the environment, guns and land concerns.

At the polls last week, Davis beat Leavitt by 88 votes in Duchesne, 122 in Garfield and 305 in Kane — this in small counties that saw only 1,000 to 1,300 people voting.

Leavitt said he understands the frustrations.

"These people are my friends. I spent much of my life with them."

It hurts to see them vote against him, Leavitt said. "I'm trying not to take it personally. There are a lot of problems down there. And I'm working on them. But things haven't moved as fast as we'd hoped. The federal government wasn't on the ballot. I was. And the governor is a symbol to strike out on."

While it's not healthy politics to say so, Leavitt can actually afford to ignore rural Utah voters. Leavitt beat Davis by 10,600 votes in Salt Lake County alone; almost 9,800 votes in conservative Utah County; much more than Davis' combined victory of 515 votes in the counties he carried. The simple numbers show you can't win a statewide race in Utah if you don't carry most of the populous Wasatch Front counties.

But Leavitt said he never will ignore rural Utahns. "I made those eight trips down there to talk about the problems, not to play politics."

Still, he hasn't turned many of the people around. And Leavitt said he knows that.

"The perception in rural counties is that because he's working with Bruce Babbitt the trust is no longer there," said Louise Liston, a longtime Garfield County commissioner. "I think the governor was trying to do the right thing in his own mind, but where Babbitt has done so much harm to rural Utah, that didn't sit too well."

"We do not think he's done a lot for rural Utah, and we did not support him for governor," said Dru Bower, head of the grass-roots chapter of People for the USA that covers Duchesne and Uintah counties.

Repairing relationships

Leavitt had worked hard, hoping for exactly the opposite reaction from rural voters.

During the past two months Leavitt has made at least eight trips to southern and eastern Utah, visiting 25 communities campaigning as a candidate or in the official capacity of governor.

Several of the trips were specifically mapped out in an effort to repair relationships with conservatives in his party upset with his stands on wilderness, economic development, guns and other matters.

Ramsay says the trips were good, but damage some rural Utahns think has been done in collaborations between Leavitt and Babbitt may have been too great.

Last fall, Leavitt got creamed in a tour of rural Utah.

"I met the governor, and I thought he was the nicest man I'd ever met, but now I've got my doubts about him, and you can tell him that," Stan Mecham of Bryce Valley told members of Leavitt's staff. Mecham owns a ranch within a national monument and was angry about a proposed monument management plan drawn by federal officials.

"We're sick and tired of the federal government, and we're sick and tired of the governor (being willing to) turn it all over to the wilderness advocates," said Carl Shakespare of Tropic.

"The people in Garfield County don't understand what's going on in Salt Lake," said Bill Cox of Boulder, "and the governor doesn't know what's going on down here."

And these sentiments still persist today.

"We are not happy with Gov. Leavitt," said Shauna Johnson of Virgin, who heads a local chapter of the 3,000-member People for the USA, formed in response to Clinton's designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

It is not the organization's policy to endorse candidates, but "we tried to get exposure for Davis and (attorney general candidate) Frank Mylar because of their strong stand on the road and private property issues," Johnson said.

"I actually tried a little campaigning for him down here" before the Tuesday primary, said Rep. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch. "Some people looked at me like I was crazy. Hey, I think I hurt my (own re-election chances) doing it. I do think the governor is misunderstood down here. But feelings are pretty strong."

Leavitt had never lost a county in a GOP vote primary before.

In the 1992 Republican primary against Richard Eyre, who actually finished ahead of Leavitt in the Republican convention that year and ran a formidable primary campaign, Leavitt carried every county. The governor didn't have a primary race in his 1996 re-election. But in the final election, he carried every county as well.

In the 1992 final election, Leavitt carried all but four counties; Merrill Cook, running as an independent, carried two; Democrat Stewart Hanson Jr. carried two more.

So it's clear the popular Leavitt is not used to finishing second anywhere in Utah.

Hard times

Davis is out of town and couldn't be reached for comment on his showing in rural Utah. His lieutenant governor running mate, Greg Hawkins, said Kane and Garfield residents are still fuming over the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Leavitt's late entry on the rural roads lawsuit. Duchesne County has fallen on hard economic times and feels forgotten, he said.

"We had a presence out there before and then really campaigned," Hawkins said, adding rural radio stations and newspapers were favorable to the Davis/Hawkins ticket.

Though they don't have hard feelings, neither Hawkins nor Davis is jumping on the Leavitt bandwagon, even after a two-hour heart-to-heart with the governor Wednesday. Asked how the lunchtime chat went, Hawkins replied, "He serves some great fish."

Hawkins said philosophical differences with Leavitt on how to run state government keep him from supporting the governor.

According to Hawkins, Davis isn't ready to back Leavitt outright. "I don't want to see (Democratic challenger Bill) Orton win," Hawkins said. "But I don't know that I can do anything but remain neutral."

E-mail: ldillon@desnews.com; bbjr@desnews.com

Contributing: Dennis Romboy