clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Gov. Gary Herbert running hard for second full term

ROY — Gov. Gary Herbert was already running late for a campaign rally in another county, but he appeared to be in no hurry to leave the families gathered recently at the 60-year-old Burger Bar.

Even after his still-wrapped "Big Ben" burger, a pile of barely touched French fries and a chocolate milkshake turned soupy by the late afternoon sun were cleared away, the 69-year-old governor kept talking and posing for pictures.

Herbert was unfazed when he was interrupted during a conversation, first by one man who suddenly leaned in close to snap a selfie with him and then another who blurted out, "I just wanted to say you've done a very good job with Utah."

That's likely what the governor, who has served since 2009 and is running for a second full term, hoped to hear from everyone at the campaign stop, where he read a proclamation honoring Ben Fowler, the fast-food restaurant's late founder.

The governor, who is facing a challenge in the June 28 primary election from Overstock.com chairman Jonathan Johnson, said he's working hard to get re-elected, and meeting people throughout the state is a big part of that effort.

"I'm not the most traveled outside of the state, but I'm certainly the most traveled inside the state. I think that's healthy for me. I think it's good for the community to see the governor, and I want to talk to people," he told the Deseret News.

Herbert said that's the point he was trying to make with his much-criticized statement that he was "Available Jones," a comic strip character willing to do anything for a price, made at a secretly recorded meeting with lobbyists.

The governor, who told the lobbyists he would sit down with their clients in exchange for a campaign contribution, said he meant that he's "been the most available governor probably in history" in terms of connecting with constituents.

But he said he could have been more "artful" in how he expressed his keenness for the campaign.

"In your enthusiasm and your zeal to let people know, 'Look, I'm not taking anything for granted. I'm going to work hard,' you know, you can probably, in fact, misstate your case. Maybe oversell the case," Herbert said.

The controversial meeting occurred just after the governor lost in late April to Johnson, 45 percent to 55 percent at the state Republican Party convention, despite an upbeat message about the strength of the state's economy under his leadership.

Herbert seldom gives a speech where he doesn't mention Utah's top rankings in the business world. Anyone driving along I-15 in recent months have seen billboards touting the addition of 219,000 jobs in the state since he took office.

His latest initiative is a pledge to make Utah No. 1 in educational achievement, through an as-yet unspecified increased investment and a new emphasis on innovation to boost student performance "the Utah way."

At the state party convention, the governor reversed his long-standing support for the Common Core standards that Johnson and other critics have said allows the federal government to exert control over schools.

An attempt by Herbert to get lawmakers to agree to eliminate a test associated with Common Core during a special legislative session in May failed after a fellow Republican, House Speaker Greg Hughes, slammed the attempt as a campaign ploy.

What's most concerning about facing a primary, the governor said, is what he described as the "negativity" of Johnson's campaign, focusing attention on the lobbyist meeting and labeling Herbert a career politician.

Herbert, a Utah County commissioner from 1990 to 2004 before becoming lieutenant governor to Jon Huntsman Jr., has taken his own jabs at the Johnson campaign's reliance on a single donor, Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne.

But even though the governor has called Byrne a "sugar daddy," he said campaigns should strive to be about what candidates have to offer to voters.

He said that doesn't happen when "the only bullet we have in the gun is negativity. I don't think that's what the people of Utah want. We ought to say, 'Here's what I have to offer. This is what I'm going to do if elected.' I wish we had more of that."

Battle-tested

Former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who faced a primary opponent when he ran for a third term, said that race was "a valuable learning experience" because it pushed him to set an agenda to justify re-election, just as Herbert is doing with education.

"Elections are an enormous opportunity for people to not just seek more time on their term, but to define their vision for the future and get buy-in," Leavitt said. "It's a terrible waste of an election when there's just an extension."

Leavitt said he believes Herbert will also benefit from being forced into a primary for the first time since assuming office when Huntsman stepped down to become U.S. Ambassador to China under President Barack Obama.

This is Herbert's third election because he had to run for the remainder of Huntsman's term in 2010. The winner of the GOP primary will face Democrat Mike Weinholtz, Libertarian Brian E. Kamerath; Independent Dell Schanze; and an unaffiliated, write-in candidate, L.S. Brown in November.

Those who know Herbert well note his competitive nature but agree with his self-assessment that he's a conservative with a moderate tone, able to foster collaboration.

"I'm not a fire-breather. I'm not a throw-red-meat-for-the-sake-of-getting-an ovation, that's all flash and no substance," the governor said. "Clearly, working together is better than division and pulling apart."

His former lieutenant governor, Greg Bell, said the lobbyist meeting was a rare time when Herbert's competitiveness got the best of him, "an unguarded moment he thought was private, emphasizing, 'I've got to go raise some money.'"

A lifelong athlete who played baseball, football and basketball at Orem High School and now, golf and tennis, Herbert usually can rely on "a certain level of confidence and mastery. He just has sure hands" as a leader, Bell said.

"A lot of executives don't want the hard issues. They don't want to get their hands dirty and take on the politics," said Bell, who stepped down in 2013 to become head of the Utah Hospital Association. "He just says, 'Bring it on.'"

Taking a shot

Bell said he saw the governor as someone who "wants the ball" in how the administration set education goals like "66 by 2020," which calls for two-thirds of all Utah adults to hold either a technical certification or college degree by 2020.

After he left, Bell said he saw the same willingness to take a shot in the governor's unsuccessful attempt to sell Utah lawmakers on his "Healthy Utah" Medicaid expansion alternative that would have implemented a new hospital tax.

"That's vintage Herbert, 'Let's take a hard problem on. Let's design it our way,'" Bell said of the program ultimately rejected by the Utah House. "He pounded it as hard as he could. He was an incredible advocate for it."

Utah's first lady, Jeanette Herbert, said the same drive that helped her "quite small" 5-foot-9 husband excel on the playing field carries over into much of the rest of his life, including politics.

"He's in it to win," she said. Married for 46 years, the couple have been through decades of campaigns, beginning with Herbert's days as a Utah County commissioner.

The controversy over the lobbyist meeting left the governor "very frustrated" and discouraged, the first lady said. "What he said was not intended to sound the way it did. I know what his intention was. But he feels bad he wasn't a little more careful."

Jeanette Herbert said the family has adapted to feeling "like we're living in a fishbowl" by holding regular Sunday dinners at their Orem home for a family that includes 16 grandchildren, as well as going out to their favorite restaurants.

"We decided early on we wanted to live a normal life," she said. That resulted in a recent switch to paper plates at family meals to make cleaning up easier. "We're pretty casual. We don't get too fancy."

She said the governor never tires of talking to people, even those who interrupt their time together at a restaurant.

"He doesn't shy away from that. I think that's probably one of the things that endears him to people the most, is they see him as someone just like them. He'll talk to them. He never acts like he's above them," the first lady said.

The governor views Utahns as if they're his family, his former chief of staff, Derek Miller, said, feeling as if he has a responsibility "to make sure everyone is getting along."

One of his biggest frustrations as Herbert's top aide, Miller said, was the governor's dislike of political games. Miller recalled an encounter with the late House speaker, Becky Lockhart, over his calling the legislative budget process "convoluted."

Herbert couldn't figure out why she stormed off from a scheduled meeting, Miller said, until it was explained her response enabled her to tell House members "how she told you off" and seem strong.

"He was just scratching his head," Miller recalled, unable to "understand how someone was playing power politics that way" when he considers the people he deals with as friends.

"It's not that he took it personally, but he views relationships not as a convenience, but as true relationships," said Miller, now head of the World Trade Center Utah. "It can be a strength and sometimes a weakness, but overall, has served him well."

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsPolitics