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It's his time: Herbert says governor job will be his last in Politics

Even though he's spent the entire day in meeting after meeting at the Capitol, Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert is full of energy as he works the crowd at a political gathering.

He practically leaps out of his shiny black state SUV to join dozens of supporters of mayoral candidate Mike Winder for a mid-July evening of ice cream and soft rock music at the family's dairy farm in West Valley City.

Herbert beams as he poses for photographs with

first Winder, then many of the other guests. He puts his arm around some of the local politicians, Republican and Democrat, there to back Winder.

Everybody gets an enthusiastic greeting from Herbert, and he listens intently to whatever they want to tell the state's next governor. By about 9 p.m., as the band is playing ABBA's "Dancing Queen" for a few stragglers, Herbert is still making the rounds.

"I've been with him when the lights were turned off at an event and he still wasn't ready to leave," sighed an obviously tired young staffer accompanying Herbert.

Clearly, mingling with voters is what Herbert likes most about politics. He even tells the crowd as much, enthusiastically describing neighborhood events like this for candidates as "a chance to renew my batteries, get them recharged and remind myself why I'm doing this."

Where he wants to be

"This," of course, is politics, something Herbert, 62, got into more than two decades ago. Now he is poised to become governor, as soon as Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is confirmed by the U.S. Senate as ambassador to China and resigns. Herbert's inauguration is expected to be Aug. 11.

He'll be sworn in to a position he promises will be his last elected office. And why not? Herbert has found himself exactly where he's wanted to be for years, about to lead the state he loves. Some of his potential rivals are already stepping aside, and few critics have emerged.

Unlike Huntsman, who was setting himself up for a possible run for the White House in 2012 when President Barack Obama tapped him to be ambassador in mid-May, Herbert insists he has no political ambition beyond serving as governor.

"For me, this really is the top of the mountain. I mean, to be governor of the state of Utah, I don't know if it gets any better than that," Herbert said. "I have zero aspirations to do anything outside of governor in politics."

Not that he begrudges those who do. "Others have been younger. Others have had probably more aspiration on the national stage. They have other talents that I don't have," Herbert said. His talent? Doing what's best for the state, he said, especially now that the economy once again has taken a turn for the worse.

"I know Utah and I think I know the Utah psyche. I know what our strengths are. I know what our weaknesses are," Herbert said. "I need to concentrate on what is in the best interests of the state of Utah."

He considers his ascension to the coveted job as "serendipity."

Herbert first tried to become governor by running in 2004 in a field of nine GOP candidates, including Huntsman. He dropped out of the race to become Huntsman's running mate and, because Huntsman pledged to limit himself to two terms, planned to run in 2012. Now, thanks to a new state constitutional amendment, he'll first have to run in 2010 for the remainder of Huntsman's term.

Entering political arena

It wasn't until around the time he turned 40, Herbert said, that he was ready to do more than just complain about the effect of the 1980s economic downturn on the real estate market. A self-described "survivor" of the tough times, he'd tired of lobbying government officials as head of local and state real estate groups about fixing the economy and decided to do it himself.

"I felt like government was a lot to blame," Herbert recalled. "That's what really prompted me to run for office. It was more out of anger and frustration and self-defense in the real estate business."

His decision to give politics a try surprised those who knew him best.

"I didn't think much of it at the time. I thought it was just a passing thing. But I could see he really, really enjoyed it. He loved talking to people," said Tom Whitaker, a friend of Herbert's since they started playing basketball together in the seventh grade.

But the first time Herbert threw his hat into the ring, for a seat on the Orem City Council, he lost. "It was a surprise," he admitted, but the loss enabled him to assume a more powerful position that he held for more than 14 years — Utah County commissioner.

Herbert's political fortunes changed when Utah County Commissioner Brent Morris quit in 1990 to run for Congress, leaving a vacancy to be filled by the remaining two commission members — or then-Gov. Norm Bangerter if they couldn't settle on a choice.

Herbert was among 13 Republicans seeking to replace Morris. The county GOP forwarded six of the names to the commission, but Herbert wasn't their first choice.

For then-Utah County Commissioner Sid Sandberg, though, there was no question after talking with all the candidates that Herbert should be at the top of the list.

"My position was we either pick Gary or the governor will decide," Sandberg recalled. "There wasn't any question in my mind that Gary was the best choice."

What Sandberg saw in the political newcomer was the ability to "bring a calmness, you could say peace" to a commission that was going through tumultuous times internally. "He struck me as someone who would focus on his work and not have some other agenda."

Sandberg described Herbert as a mediator. "Not that he is without intensity. Gary is extremely intense at moving his work forward. He has a way of doing that, that doesn't offend everyone else. He has a way of reaching his political objectives in a pleasant way."

The word former Orem Mayor Stella Welsh uses to describe Herbert is "fair." She is one of the few Democratic women to have been elected in Utah County, considered to be one of the most conservative areas of one of the reddest states in America.

"When he was on the county commission, I could always go into his office and talk to him. We never did have a disagreement that I could remember," Welsh said. "He looks into things and he makes up his mind about what's right and what's wrong."

Another Democrat, longtime Salt Lake County Commissioner Randy Horiuchi, who worked closely with Herbert on the Utah Association of Counties, couldn't remember any disagreements, either.

"Gary and I literally saw eye-to-eye on everything we dealt with on a public policy basis," Horiuchi said. "I have always felt he was a very sensible, common-sense kind of guy."

That makes him well-suited to take over the state in a time of economic turmoil, Horiuchi said. Utahns want "a sort of meat-and-potatoes kind of guy" in charge now, he said.

"Huntsman was a lot flashier. There was more glitz to him. While people liked that, now they want someone more efficient who can run their government," Horiuchi said. "The need someone who can roll up their sleeves."

Pragmatic problem solver

Herbert has done just that, long ago putting aside the frustration with government he brought to politics for a more pragmatic approach to solving problems. It's a lesson learned from his years in local government, where, he likes to say, "the rubber meets the road."

That means government is not the enemy, as Herbert explained recently to sports-equipment maker and International Olympic Committee member Jim Easton. Easton, whose company employs nearly 600 Utahns, came to the lieutenant governor's office to ask Herbert to participate in a medals ceremony at an archery tournament in Ogden.

"I'm not anti-government, but it ought to be a diminished role," is how Herbert described what he sees as the proper role of government in dealing with businesses such as Easton's. "We should stay off your backs and out of your wallets."

With an election just over a year away, Herbert has been distancing himself from some of Huntsman's more controversial positions, including the governor's support for addressing climate change and allowing civil unions for gay and other non-traditional couples.

Instead, Herbert is trying to stay focused on the ultimate "meat-and-potatoes" issue, the economy. When lawmakers meet in January, they face the grim prospect of more demand for state services and less money. Unlike in the 2009 Legislature, there won't be hundreds of millions of federal stimulus dollars available to help close the gap.

"I know I'm inheriting the state government at probably the most difficult time in the past 25 years economically. We have a significant challenge with our budget," Herbert said. The looming election "just compounds the problem, the difficulty. We need to govern, and yet I do need to look over my shoulder at 2010 at the special election I've got to run."

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said the upcoming session is an opportunity for Herbert to show voters he can govern. That's something most governors have four years to prove.

"There are also some pretty big risks," Bramble said, not the least of which is the very real possibility some lawmakers will end up running against Herbert next year. "It's a chance to demonstrate what he's made of."

Utah County Commissioner Steve White said with only one legislative session to cement his GOP base and "not to offend the Republican delegates," Herbert needs to avoid political extremes.

"The middle of the Republican road, really where the majority of Utah is," White said. "He's going to have to be who he's always been."

Herbert admits that it's "been a little bit awkward" filling in for Huntsman without the title of governor. "I'm doing the work of governor and yet I don't have the entire legal authority to do it. And I have a lot of regard and respect for Gov. Huntsman and I wouldn't want to do something contrary to what he has put in place while he's the governor."

Still, Herbert said, he's ready. "Although I kind of want to pinch myself now and again because I'm excited about the opportunity and the challenge, the best way to describe it, though, is, I feel very comfortable. I feel very prepared to take over the job."

'Good hard worker'

Herbert has been working hard all his life.

"Gary always worked on Saturdays. He would go wash milk trucks," recalled his longtime friend Whitaker. "He was a good hard worker. No silver spoons."

Known back then as "Herbie," Herbert worked hardest at sports. At Orem High School, he was a third baseman and pitcher on the baseball team, quarterback on the football team and point guard on the basketball team.

"Gary was always very competitive, a good athlete," another old friend, Ron Hawkins, said. "When you played against him, you respected him. When he played on your team, you were happy to have him."

A popular letterman who often double-dated with Hawkins, Herbert managed to make good grades. His best subject was history, a topic he still enjoys reading about today.

His leadership abilities, however, were displayed on the playing field, not in student government, Hawkins said. Herbert credits sports with giving him the confidence to eventually enter politics.

"Sports were a big part of my life growing up," Herbert said during his meeting with the sports-equipment maker, Easton. "I'd probably still be in my cocoon without sports."

Since high school, Herbert has stayed competitive with golf and tennis. Whitaker said Herbert taught himself to play both sports by watching matches and reading instruction books.

"We started at the same time and he passed me up," Whitaker said. "He just took it very seriously."

Canadian Football League star Ben Cahoon, who married Herbert's oldest daughter, Kimberli, said his father-in-law understands the power of the mind in improving his game.

"Gary's one of the few guys whose golf game can improve over the winter, because he'll watch instructional videos and the Golf Channel," then visualize what he needs to do to play better, Cahoon said.

That means Herbert is usually the winner when the two play golf. "He's a fierce competitor, absolutely," the Montreal Alouettes slotback said. "Always courteous, but the odd times I have beaten him, it's a curt handshake on the final green."

Family and career

Herbert brought the same zeal to real estate, a career he didn't put completely on hold until he became lieutenant governor.

He'd chosen to leave Brigham Young University before graduating to join his father, Duane, in the family's Orem-based real estate business, Herbert & Associates Realtors.

These days, he speaks of the industry reverently and said he'd be happy to return to real estate once his time as governor is over.

"It's the American dream to own a little piece of Mother Earth," Herbert said recently. "It's the epitome of freedom, the fact that you have private property. You don't find that in communist countries, so it's the basis for freedom. It's also the basis for commerce, the ability to take from the earth and do something with it on a commercial basis."

Still, Herbert said, he and his wife, Jeanette, might end up serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints post-politics. After high school, Herbert served an LDS Church mission in the eastern Atlantic states.

Herbert and his wife, who have six kids and nine grandkids, started and ran a day-care center in Orem for 23 years before selling the business in 2007. They still live in Orem, and Herbert commutes daily to Salt Lake City.

That will change when he takes over as governor, although the Herberts have said they'll keep their Orem home even after they move into the Governor's Mansion. Family, his friends say, has always been central to Herbert's life.

As a young boy and throughout his life, he stayed close to his natural father, Paul, after his parents divorced. His mother, Carol, remarried and her new husband, Duane, adopted him.

"Family is so important to the Herberts," said daughter-in-law Carmen Rasmusen, an "American Idol" finalist who will sing at Herbert's inauguration. "I love them like my own family."

She said Herbert helped convince her marriage was the right choice to make at a time when she was thinking of focusing instead on her singing career.

"He came up to me and put his arm around me and he said just how much they love me and how proud they would be to have me as a daughter-in-law," Rasmusen, now the mother of 7-month-old Boston, recalled.

The advice Herbert gave her is no doubt the same words he's lived by. "He said, 'If you put what's most important first, everything else will work out.'"

e-mail: lisa@desnews.com