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Former Utah Gov. Olene Walker hopes new institute can help restore political civility

In this May 8, 2004, file photo, Gov. Olene Walker speaks at the state Republican convention in Sandy, Utah.
In this May 8, 2004, file photo, Gov. Olene Walker speaks at the state Republican convention in Sandy, Utah.
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Olene Walker said on the eve of the opening of her namesake political and public service institute at Weber State University that it's time to put a stop to negative campaigns.

"Slowly but surely, that trend has come to Utah. And I think it's unfortunate," Walker said Tuesday, particularly in the hotly contested 4th District race for Congress between Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat, and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, a Republican.

Both candidates, she said, are "good people. I admire them both. They both have strong values and integrity, and yet it's because it's so negative that when you think about it, you think of the negatives rather than the positives that they have in their lives."

Walker, the state's first woman governor and a Republican, said while voters in other states are used to having their airwaves dominated by negative campaign commercials, Utahns aren't.

"I feel in Utah our expectations have been higher than that," she said, blaming the onslaught of negative adds largely on the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited spending by so-called super PACs that are not supposed to coordinate with the campaigns.

The ruling "has created a sense of irresponsibility because they can say anything they want and not be held accountable. And the candidates will say, 'We had no part of it. They do what they want to do,'" Walker said.

Candidates, she said, feel like they have little choice but to strike back.

The incivility extends, too, to the legislative process, she said, expressing frustration over the lack of bipartisanship not just in Congress, but also in Utah.

Walker said the tone of politics was very different when she served in the Utah Legislature before spending 10 years as lieutenant governor and then becoming governor in 2003 when former Gov. Mike Leavitt accepted a post in President George W. Bush's administration.

"When I was in the Legislature, you didn't feel that negative feeling about the other party. In fact, we usually worked together," Walker said. "Think how that has changed in a relatively short time."

Utah has "been dominated by Republicans for a long time," the 80-year-old said. "But I think, as Republicans, we have this obligation and the responsibility to listen to what the other side is saying and find a compromise."

She said she hopes Weber State's new Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service will help restore the civility in politics that seems to be missing through training leaders on campus and in the northern Utah community.

The topic may come up during the new institute's first event Wednesday, a discussion among three former Utah governors, Walker, Leavitt and Norm Bangerter and Gov. Gary Herbert.

Last month, Herbert, also a Republican, called for an end to negative campaigning in the 4th District race, saying that's not the way to reach Utah voters.

"Having gone through a very negative campaign a couple of years ago by my opponent then, I understand that's not the way to do politics in Utah," Herbert said, referring to his decisive 2010 victory over Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, a Democrat.

Both state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said they agree with Walker on the need to end negative campaigning — and that super PACs deserve much of the blame.

But both political party leaders also said there's a difference between negative campaigning and candidates pointing out differences with their opponents.

"If pointing out somebody's voting record is negative, what are we going to talk about?" Wright said. "I think it's the spirit in which it's intended."

He called Love's campaign, which the Utah GOP is heavily involved in, positive and issues-based. It's the super PAC's involvement that's "out of control" and needs to stop, Wright said.

Dabakis said "there's a fine line between going negative and explaining the facts. … One person's negative ad is the other one's explaining the facts."

Matheson, Dabakis said, has only responded as a result of being attacked. The Democratic party leader, too, said it the fault of super PACs that the 4th District race is so negative.

Wright said the 4th District race is unique for Utah because it has attracted so much super PAC spending from around the country and likely won't have a lasting impact.

"This is the biggest race Utah has ever seen, and it'll probably be the biggest race we'll see for a long time," the GOP party leader said. "I personally don't think it's going to change how we do things in Utah. … Utahns are going to demand better."

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