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Why Utah’s outgoing governor sees himself as a Roger Staubach or a Bart Starr

Gary Herbert’s tenure, where he tried to do things the “Utah Way,” will soon come to an end after more than a decade in office

SHARE Why Utah’s outgoing governor sees himself as a Roger Staubach or a Bart Starr
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Gov. Gary Herbert talks about his time in office during an interview at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Gov. Gary Herbert settled into a maroon velvet armchair with gold tassels skirting the edges Monday in the ornate library of the Utah Governor’s Mansion he has called home for more than a decade.

Books on Utah and Mormon history fill the glass-covered wooden shelves. A 19th century now refurbished recliner Brigham Young used to relax in sits in front of a wooden fireplace. Herbert is seated next to a Christmas tree with pictures of his grandchildren dangling from its live branches.

He is wearing a sign of the times, one of those ubiquitous disposable blue face masks.

The Republican governor hasn’t spent much time behind the wooden desk in the corner during his time in the mansion. But being in the room instantly reminds him of a time when he did.

It was during the government shutdown in 2013. Herbert negotiated a deal at that desk late into the night over three days with Obama administration Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reopen national parks in the state.

“That’s one of our great moments of collaboration, a Republican governor working with a Democrat administration,” he said during one of several one-on-one “exit” interviews he did Monday with local media.

Working together to find a solution — the “Utah Way” as the governor likes to say — has been a mark of his administration, though it didn’t always come easy.

Herbert will end his nearly 30 years in elected office — 14 as a Utah County commissioner, five as lieutenant governor and the last nearly 11 as the state’s chief executive — in early January. Now 73, he opted to not seek another term and will hand over the reins to his lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox, who won election in November.

Recession to pandemic

The top job fell to Herbert when GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. resigned in 2009 to become the U.S. ambassador to China. The new governor came in during the Great Recession and will leave during a devastating pandemic.

As trying as it was to guide the state through an economic downturn and federal shutdown, it’s nothing compared to having to navigate the deadly coronavirus that has gripped Utah and the country the past 10 months.

Utah was more than a pretty, great state in early 2020. The economy was humming. Unemployment was at a record low. The state had earmarked $2 billion for public education. Herbert planned trade missions to Saudi Arabia and Dubai and Australia and New Zealand to further the state’s economic reach.

And then COVID-19 hit.

“We couldn’t even get to Canada,” the governor said.

Any thoughts Herbert had for a smooth sailing final year vanished as the virus spread throughout the state. Everything took a back seat to dealing with health and economic issues on the homefront.

“It’s permeated every aspect of our lives, this pandemic. It’s frustrating. People are angry and disappointed,” he said. “This last year isn’t like anything I expected.”

Herbert said his biggest disappointment is that he can’t come back and make it better next year, and “kind of take that sour taste out of my mouth.”

The governor said he believes the state has struck a “logical, rational” balance between protecting residents’ health and keeping the economy from completely tanking. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, he said. He points to Utah’s low mortality rate, and said Utah is even doing much better than “closed” states.

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Gov. Gary Herbert talks about his time in office during an interview at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Herbert has taken some criticism over his handling of COVID-19. He acknowledged it wasn’t perfect. He also recognizes it’s part of being in the political arena.

He cited shifting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the Trump administration and medical professionals for the sometimes disjointed state response.

People, he said, were a little short on patience as the state set a course to move forward.

“We reacted with the best information we had at the time,” he said. “And whether someone else was in the governor’s chair, Republican or Democrat, I do believe that most all the decisions would have been made exactly the same. That wasn’t done in a vacuum.”

With people on the far right and the far left upset with how the state has dealt with the pandemic, Herbert said Utah has done a good job of threading the needle.

He’s not sure state officials communicated as well as they could have, and noted some internal struggles between the state agency that manages the money and the one charged with public health.

Racial protests

In the midst of the pandemic, Salt Lake City also experienced unprecedented rioting in the streets during protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and others. Herbert surveyed the scene on May 30 from a helicopter. He said he knew emotions were high, but the outbursts that led to the torching of a police cruiser surprised him.

“It was adding one log on top of another until we had a big fire burning,” he said.

Government policies and laws have a role in bridging the racial divide, but it comes down to learning not to offend others and also being slow to take offense, he said. 

People are all children of God, which makes them brothers and sisters, he said, adding it’s hearts and minds that need to change.

“When we do that, we won’t need all these rules and laws,” said Herbert, who last week launched the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. 

Like the Utah Compact on immigration of a decade ago, Herbert hopes it serves as model for other states.

Politics was ‘a fluke’

An avid golfer who looks forward to getting his 12 handicap to a single digit, Herbert pointed to communication as one area where he would want a mulligan the past decade. There were times, he said, where he could have explained his position better or where he put his foot in his mouth. Sometimes people took things in a way that he didn’t intend.

“I wish I could go back and do this interview again,” the governor said, reflecting on how he might have answered questions differently.

Politics, he said, is a lot about communication.

Herbert has a come a long way from the kid in Orem who almost never raised his hand to answer a question all through school, including college. Shy and a little insecure, he revealed himself in high school athletics where he captained the football, basketball and baseball teams. He came out of his shell after serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the eastern United States.

He began a career in real estate, and then the ’80s happened. The housing market crash killed his business, and he was mad. Someone told him he should do something about it. He ran for Orem City Council and lost by 36 votes.

“I got into politics as a fluke. I was angry,” he said.

In 1990, he was among 12 candidates seeking to fill a seat that came open midterm on the Utah County Commission. He won and has held an elected office ever since.

Meantime, the real estate market soared in the ’90s and he watched his buddies make a ton of money while he dealt with run-of-the-mill policy issues, wrangled with the federal government over air quality and learned to manage a county budget. Little did he realize those things would serve him well 15 years later. In fact, his time as governor paralleled in many ways his time as a county commissioner.

Herbert said he has always tried to make things better for others.

Always one for sports analogies, Herbert as governor might be viewed, in football parlance, as more of a game manager like Alex Smith than a creative innovator like Patrick Mahomes.

He sees himself as a Roger Staubach or a Bart Starr, both Super Bowl winning quarterbacks who did what it took to get the job done.

“I can run when I need to run. I can throw when I need to throw. I can call the right play that fits the defense at the time. I call an audible if necessary, but I’m a steady hand on the tiller,” Herbert said.

He’s not much of a scrambler like Steve Young. What you see is what you get, he says.

For him as governor, that meant the same focus every year: economy, education and roads. No big policy swings, a meat-and-potatoes approach.

“But meat and potatoes is pretty healthy and gets you to where you need to be,” he said. “I’m Steady Eddie.”

That’s better than the foot-in-mouth label he hung on himself during a secretly recorded meeting he had with potential campaign donors, including lobbyists, whom he told he would do whatever it takes to raise money.

“I’m available. I’m Available Jones,” he was heard saying on the tape.

While that is a low moment in his tenure, Herbert has had plenty of highs. No Democrat came close to unseating him. He enjoyed consistently high job approval ratings.

The pope and Captain Kirk

Asked to name some the highlights of the job, the governor talks about people he met from heads of states to entertainers.

There was the time during a comics convention he had a long conversation over dinner with William Shatner. The actor who played Captain Kirk on “Star Trek” wanted to know what happens when you die. Herbert shared what he believes as a Latter-day Saint about an afterlife.

In Jerusalem, he sat down with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “He said, ‘Gary, I don’t think Israel has a better friend than Utah,’” the governor recalled.

At the Vatican, he had an opportunity to chat with Pope Francis, who said to him, “You’re from that city with all the Mormons.” Herbert said he thanked the Pope for his service and helping people find God.

But Herbert said the most memorable moment was when Pope Francis asked him and his wife, Jeanette, to do him a favor: “Would you pray for me?”

Heady stuff for, as he says, “a little guy from Orem.”

Herbert plans to return to his Orem home when he leaves office. Though he lived in the Governor’s Mansion, he spent most weekends in Orem to stay grounded where he is Gary or “Brother Herbert” among Latter-day Saint neighbors.

In addition to shaving some strokes off his golf game, he plans to play tennis, maybe even enter some national tournaments. He’ll spend time at the policy center that bears his name at Utah Valley University and perhaps teach some classes.

The governor said he has a role helping young people be civic minded and teaching them what they can do to forge the future of America in a positive way, and that capitalism is the “best ism out there.”

Of course, Herbert couldn’t do an interview about his tenure without mentioning Utah is the best managed state in the country.

He leaves office as the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute released a report this month describing the state’s explosive economic and population growth the past 10 years.

“I can have smile on my face and say, ‘I’m grateful for the work of so many. It’s allowed us on my watch to have the best decade in Utah’s history,’” Herbert said.

“We’ve just had a great run. It hasn’t been perfect. But I guess until we get to heaven, we’re not going to reach perfection. I feel like we’re on the right road and we’re going in the right direction.”