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Walker notes kindred feeling with Herbert

Few elected officials experience an unexpected promotion to a top office.

Former Utah Gov. Olene Walker is among those who was called on to make that unplanned ascension, and the circumstances in which she made the move in 2003 after then-Gov. Mike Leavitt was confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency have much in common with Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert's path to the governor's office. On Monday, Walker recalled her feelings on the eve of becoming the state's chief executive six years ago.

"I was overwhelmed but at the same time inspired by the challenge and honor," Walker said. "It is somewhat amazing that the mantle passes in such a brief ceremony that carries so much significance."

Walker, like Herbert, stepped in for an outgoing leader moving into a federal appointment. And, like Herbert, took over the new position with a Cabinet chosen by her predecessor. Taking on the responsibilities that come with the job while relying on a team picked by someone else was a relatively easy process, she said.

"I had been very involved in the interviews and hiring process of Gov. Leavitt's Cabinet," Walker said. "So, I was very familiar with everyone and it was a smooth transition."

Herbert spokeswoman Angie Welling said Monday that the new governor is in a similar situation and comfortable with the current leadership team assembled by outgoing Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. Welling, along with Herbert's new chief of staff Jason Perry, and a yet-to-be-named general counsel, are essentially the full complement of new staffers.

The tone of those first steps as governor may be where the Walker-Herbert similarities end. Herbert has pledged to essentially stay the course set by Huntsman. Walker, the first woman to hold the state's highest office, said she felt enormous pressure to not just hold the position but to make it count.

"I felt a great weight on my shoulders, being the first female governor," Walker said. "I didn't want to just be a caretaker. … I wanted to make my presence felt."

Walker did just that, taking a leadership role in education issues and spearheading a number of initiatives. She acknowledged, however, that Herbert would likely be occupied addressing unprecedented budget challenges and a state economy wallowing in the trough of recession. Everything he does to cope with those fiscal issues, Walker said, will be in the spotlight.

"Making the change, you realize you are now the person seen as being responsible for the state," she said. "In dealing with the budget issues, people will hold Gov. Herbert accountable … no matter what happens."

When asked what advice she would give Herbert, Walker said it comes down to commitment and motivation, traits she said the new governor has already shown.

"Doing this job requires a love of this state, the people … and serving their best interests," Walker said. "It was my goal and, I know, will be Gov. Herbert's goal."

e-mail: araymond@desnews.com