clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

'Giving back' important to Huntsman

The race for governor: Matheson vs. Huntsman

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. sat with his back to the sweeping view of the Salt Lake Valley from the headquarters of his family's business empire during a meeting with a group of would-be constituents.

Huntsman instead focused all of his attention on the senior citizens and their advocates who had come to talk with him about the issues they want addressed if he's elected governor Nov. 2. "Your needs are going to be increasingly important," he told them.

Then the former diplomat began rattling off a series of statistics about the growth in Utah's aging population, noting that combined with the ever-increasing number of children, the state's resources are being squeezed by what he described as an hourglass effect.

But with his wife, Mary Kaye, and several campaign aides by his side, Huntsman listened, too, to their stories of elderly Utahns being forced out of their own homes to be warehoused in costly care centers.

He asked the group to continue with their presentation when their allotted half-hour was up. Finally, when they were finished, Huntsman promised to follow up on their discussion.

"These are pretty powerful ideas," he said.

Heng-Chee Chan, Singapore's ambassador to the United States, lists the ability to listen as one of Huntsman's most important qualities. Chan first met Huntsman when he served as the U.S. ambassador to her country, and later, as a deputy U.S. trade representative to Asia.

"All my colleagues found him very approachable," Chan said. "He had a certain demeanor about him, a certain way. He was very gentlemanly and gracious. He made every country feel he was listening to them."

It also helped that he is fluent in Mandarin, a Chinese dialect. "He really won over Singaporeans, especially the Chinese-educated constituency, because he spoke Mandarin," Chan said. "He speaks excellent Mandarin."

Huntsman, 44, learned the difficult language as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Taiwan at the same time the United States was withdrawing diplomatic recognition of the country to appease China.

"I was riding around and people would throw things at you and they'd call you bad names," he recalled. "I thought, 'Taiwan is a friendly country. Why is it that they are treating us this way? We're American after all.' "

He got his answer by immersing himself in the issue, reading whatever he could find that wasn't censored by the new government. "I was intrigued by it all," Huntsman said, how he "watched how human beings were reacting to U.S. policy. It was sort of baptism . . . by fire."

The experience left him "overwhelmed with American power overseas. I had never comprehended that before," he said, adding it made him want to take a closer look at "the role of the United States abroad, and how we had an impact, good or bad."

Before he left for his LDS Church mission in 1979, Huntsman already had resumed his formal education. He'd dropped out of Salt Lake City's Highland High School his senior year to play music — keyboards in several rock 'n' roll bands and jazz piano.

Huntsman studied at the University of Utah both before and after his mission but transferred to the University of Pennsylvania in 1984 to study international business and political science. He earned a degree three years later.

It was during that time that he got to know former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, who's now serving as an adviser on Huntsman's campaign. Huntsman and his wife traveled from the Philadelphia campus to spend weekends at Garn's Washington, D.C., area home.

"I was just really impressed with his attitude and his ambition for the future," Garn said. "He talked a great deal about the things he would like to accomplish. . . . He wanted to be in government and make his own mark."

Garn said Huntsman expected to be part of the family business, too. Today, Huntsman is the chairman and chief executive officer of the holding company for the $10 billion Huntsman Corp. that employs 15,000 people worldwide.

His return to school impressed Garn. "For people to turn themselves around like that, to me shows incredible determination in setting goals," the longtime senator from Utah said. "To see the importance of that . . . and accomplish what he's accomplished, I think that's a big, big plus."

Most Utahns, though, know more about the accomplishments of Huntsman's father, the billionaire philanthropist, than they do his son. His father even launched a quickly aborted bid for governor himself, back in 1988.

The junior Huntsman said he never expected to follow his father's footsteps in that direction, even though he had been touted as a likely gubernatorial candidate.

"I just always thought they were talking about a different guy," he said. "I never thought I'd be taking this route."

His family did push him into public service, however. "I was raised in that kind of atmosphere, where giving back, serving your country, is a noble thing," Huntsman said. "I've always carried it with me."

His friend and former bandmate, Dr. Howard Sharp, said Huntsman loved politics even as he was performing gigs along the Wasatch Front and even as far away at St. George with their band, Wizard.

"I know his heart and soul have been in politics from early on," Sharp said. "Jon has been kind of the black sheep in that regard. He's always been very close to his father, but his interest from the get-go has always been politics, not business."

Garn said Huntsman worked hard to excel in the government posts he held, to be able to hold out his own accomplishments. "I think you learn from your parents and you want to follow their example, but you also want to be an individual," he said. "I see that in Jon."

The former senator said both Huntsman and his Democratic opponent, Scott Matheson Jr., the son of the late governor, share the challenge of making voters see them separately from their fathers.

"It's easier that his opponent is a junior, too," Garn said. "Nobody can criticize one or the other when both are juniors."

Robert Zoellick, U.S. trade representative since 2001, said he only met Huntsman's father once. "I never knew his father," said the man who named Huntsman one of his deputy trade representatives. "I knew Jon for Jon."

Zoellick said Huntsman, one of the nation's youngest-ever ambassadors, was named to his government posts on his own merit. "There are a lot of Republican business people whose children don't get appointed ambassador," he said.

Huntsman, Zoellick said, is "a very nice person, but he can also get things done." Once, Zoellick and his staff were not able to find a flight from Indonesia to India for a last-minute diplomatic mission.

It was Huntsman who came to their rescue, using his contacts with Singapore Airlines. "Years after he left, all he had to do was ask," Zoellick marveled. He also said Huntsman bypassed some of the trappings of his postings.

Once, as a deputy trade representative, Zoellick said Huntsman arrived in Vietnam and insisted on eating at a small noodle shop "as opposed to other senior American officials, who want to be whisked into their quarantined hotels. . . . He must have a strong stomach."

That's not surprising to Sharp, who said that back in their band days, Huntsman always "wanted to go to the seediest joint that there was. . . . I think he didn't want to portray an air of being born with a lot of money. I think he wanted to be recognized on his own merit."

By the time they met some 25 years ago, Sharp said, Huntsman's family was already on the way to becoming one of the state's wealthiest. But Huntsman "didn't drive a flashy car. He didn't dress in expensive clothes. He was just one of the guys," Sharp said.

Huntsman himself talks about his humble beginnings.

"My earliest recollection of business is making calls with my father on chicken farms in Southern California, and to the grocery stores that would sell the eggs," he said.

"I take my kids back there to Southern California just to show them how their dad grew up wasn't always big business," Huntsman said. "It evolved because (their grandparents) were willing to take a risk, and now the second generation works very hard."

Huntsman himself tries to play hard, too. He still loves music, joking that he's "marketed myself as the only candidate who knows what Lollapalooza (a rock festival) is," and an expert in trivia about the Red Hot Chili Peppers band.

But ask Huntsman his favorite radio station and he admits paying more attention to news and political analysis than the latest tunes. His iPod music player contains everything from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech to the band Toad the Wet Sprocket.

Sharp said the pair went to a Rush concert last summer, an evening that had political benefits for Huntsman.

"He got some mileage out of that," Sharp said. "People were recognizing him all night and actually commenting on the fact he would go to a rock concert."