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Olene Walker: Legacy without an heir

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ST. GEORGE, UTAH — Every Sunday at church the 15th governor of Utah takes charge of teaching the young children. On the golf course she breathes from an oxygen mask between shots.

In contrast, the Beehive State's 16th governor spends his days crisscrossing the country in private planes as a candidate for U.S. president.

On a macro level the juxtaposition of the two former governors, Olene S. Walker and Jon Huntsman Jr., illustrates how seemingly insignificant developments in state politics can eventually affect an entire nation. For Walker personally, Huntsman's ascension at her expense also offers context as to why her trailblazing political legacy has no heir — at least not yet.

In late 2003 Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt resigned late in his third term in order to head the Environmental Protection Agency. The resignation effectively promoted Lt. Gov. Olene Walker to the top elected office in the state on Nov. 5. Ten days shy of her 73rd birthday, she became the first female governor in Utah's 113-year history.

Having served in the Utah House from 1981-89 and as lieutenant governor for a decade (1993-2003), Walker felt very qualified for her new job. She launched a popular reading initiative and emphasized the importance of education; within months of becoming governor her approval rating had shot up to 81 percent.

Although several months would pass before the issue fully manifested itself, the timing of an early November transition proved highly problematic for Walker. When she moved into the governor's mansion, the 2004 legislative session was set to run from Jan. 19 to March 3. But in order to win a full term as governor she'd first need to survive the staunchly conservative delegates of the May 8 state Republican convention — no easy task for a relatively moderate candidate like Walker even without the tight time crunch she faced.

"I recognize people were somewhat surprised that I had a very slim chance of getting out of convention even though I had a very high approval rating," Walker recalls. "I had a lot of strong support among the mainstream still-conservative Republicans and I had a lot of support among independents, but I understood the realities of having a very conservative group at that Republican convention."

Faced with the choice of focusing on re-election or shepherding the legislative session, Walker ultimately prioritized the state's interests over her own political future and delayed deciding whether to run for governor until after the legislature dispersed. It's a choice she still thinks about today.

"I was very aware that many candidates had spent two years on gaining delegates and impressing delegates," Walker said. "But I was more concerned about proving a woman could be a capable governor than being part of the political process to be re-elected."

Once Walker decided in early March that she would in fact seek re-election, barely two months remained before the GOP convention — precious little time for her to win over enough party delegates. And it showed: she finished fourth at convention (only the top two can advance to a primary). With Walker preemptively removed from the running, Huntsman crushed his opponent in the Republican primary and cruised to a decisive victory in the November general election.

"I think Jon is a good politician who recognized he had to come over as a very strong conservative (in 2004)," Walker said. "Now I think that changed in his second term, but I think at the time he recognized that (reality)."

Whether Walker could have defeated Huntsman head-to-head in a closed GOP primary in 2004 will forever remain unknown; no on-point polling of registered Republicans exists to even suggest an answer to that question.

"Olene was very popular, but Huntsman had the name before he even got into politics," said veteran Utah pollster Dan Jones. "It really got controversial. … What really hurt Olene with the Republicans was her stand on (school) vouchers; she stood tough for education, and that was not what the Republicans wanted. So it would've been very difficult for Olene to beat Huntsman in a primary, but I don't have the research to prove that she couldn't have."

However, one poll in particular is enough to fuel speculation of what might have been: in March 2004, the Deseret News reported that in hypothetical head-to-head matchups alternately pitting Walker or Huntsman against Democrat gubernatorial candidate Scott Matheson Jr., Utah voters favored Walker over the Democrat by a significantly larger margin (55-35) than they preferred Huntsman to Matheson (47-40).

If Walker, the incumbent with an approval rating above 80 percent, had found a way to face and best Huntsman in a primary — if, say, she'd started seeking re-election sooner or acquiesced on her stand against school vouchers to be more in line with the state Republican delegates — Huntsman might not be running for president today.

Now retired and living in St. George, Walker still enjoys golfing as often as possible. At 80, she sits in the cart and takes oxygen while the other members of her foursome are hitting.

Since September 2009, Walker has been serving as the Primary president of her LDS ward. For nearly two hours every Sunday, she corrals, coaxes and teaches several dozen children ages 3-11. It's a calling that initially required significant adaptation for Walker — prior to her current church assignment, the last time she'd worked with the children in Primary had been 1968.

If retirement has slowed Walker's mind, it doesn't show. She travels frequently for her work with multiple committees ("I'm involved more than I would anticipate, but I'm willing to be involved so I can't complain"). Also, she stays abreast of politics in the Beehive State — to the extent that, during a recent impromptu phone conversation, she accurately cited from memory several precise statistics about her greatest political passion, education.

"I am concerned about the direction we're going in education, both higher and public," Walker said. "The legislature and everyone keeps saying it's a priority, but if you look at the funding, that's the area that we have decreased significantly (while) we've gone up in other areas like transportation and Medicaid.

"Clear back in the 90s, we were always in the top 10 percent of the percentage of our personal income going to education. We keep claiming that's our priority, but now we're now 27th in the nation in the percentage of our income we pay for education even though we have more children (per capita) than any other state."

Because Walker burst through such significant gender barriers, her place in the history of Beehive State politics is assured. But in some ways, her service eclipsed gender.

"Olene Walker's leadership style throughout her public career was characterized by even-handed, public-spirited common sense," said Leavitt, a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board who was thrice elected governor with Walker as his running mate. "She isn't an ideologue, but it would be a mistake to confuse that with a lack of clarity in her views. Her focus has always been the betterment of Utah, even if that meant political independence.

"Olene's legacy will be defined by a lifetime of relentless advocacy for better education, improved housing and sound economic judgment. She will always be seen as a trailblazer not just for woman, but for all public servants."

Today Utah is one of only five states where no woman holds statewide elected office or serves in Congress. But it wasn't so long ago when multiple women played prominent roles in Beehive State politics. During Walker's first two terms as lieutenant governor, 1993-2001, Jan Graham and DeeDee Corradini served as state attorney general and Salt Lake City mayor, respectively. Also, during 1993-97 females represented Utah in the U.S. House (first Karen Shepherd and later Enid Greene Mickelsen).

Unless and until another Utah woman wins a statewide or federal election, the issues of gender and legacy will remain inexorably intertwined for Walker. Asked to define her own political legacy as Utah's only female governor, her initial response included enthusiasm that a "viable candidate" like House Speaker Becky Lockhart is reportedly mulling gubernatorial aspirations. Then, though, Walker's tone changed course.

"I think there's still some mentality that women aren't capable of serving in those offices," Walker confessed. "I still think there's some concern, and there are some opinions that it's a man's job and only when they don't find a capable man to fill the role will they consider a woman. I think it's tradition that slowly will change, but I'm not certain it's changed sufficiently for a woman to be elected (governor).

"I hope I made some difference. … I hope I'm remembered as a person that cared about Utah and its future. I never felt I was a politician — and that may be naive, but I felt my focus was always on improving the state."

The numbers

426: days Olene Walker served as Utah governor

1: female governors in Utah's history

5: states with no woman in Congress or statewide office (Ga., Miss., Nebr., Utah, Va.)

80: Walker's age today

Email: jaskar@desnews.com

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