SALT LAKE CITY — Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who announced Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi as his running mate Friday in his bid for a third term as Utah’s governor, said he knew right away that she should be his pick for lieutenant governor.
“I don’t think I’ve met another person in local politics who was quite as inspirational. It took probably, I’d say, about 10 seconds after we met for me to realize that she was something very, very special,” Huntsman told the Deseret News shortly after tweeting an announcement video.
He said what was supposed to be a brief stop on the way back from a campaign swing through southern Utah turned into “an incredible melding of the minds, a bonding experience sharing our respective views on government and public service” that lasted well over an hour.
“We started thinking at that point, OK, leadership, well recognized by a lot; experience, six years on the school board; having raised a great family, now a highly respected mayor; common objectives, a love for public service in this state,” Huntsman said.
But he said it was first-term mayor’s “ability to inspire which I was absolutely smitten by. I think that she will appeal to so many corners of this state where heretofore, folks have maybe felt left out of the political system or haven’t been energized or excited by politics. I think Michelle is going to change a lot of that.”
Inspiration, Huntsman said, is “the one missing part of politics, particularly in today’s hyper-cynical world.” He said voters will relate to Kaufusi’s success “against all odds,” after being raised by a single mother who went back to school to earn a nursing degree and worked graveyard shifts to support her seven children.
Huntsman said he’d already started to put together a shortlist of lieutenant governor candidates, but “we were so energized after meeting and getting to know Michelle and her family that we thought, the time is right, why wait? Let’s move on it and start campaigning as a team. That really supercharged our decision.”
Kaufusi, elected the first woman mayor of Provo in 2017, told the Deseret News she never thought she’d be running for statewide office.
“Absolutely not. I had my head down and was working. I love being the mayor of Provo. I love the people I work with,” she said. “I guess that’s what happens, is when you decide to get out and serve because you’re drawn to it with no expectations whatsoever, is it seems like I keep getting tapped. So this tapping thing is a real thing.”
Before winning the mayor’s race, Kaufusi served six years as a member and president of the Provo School Board. She said she is “passionate” about education and that, “There’s nothing like having actually worked on those issues.”
In 2017, Kaufusi told the Deseret News before her inauguration as mayor that she was proud of the blow she’d struck for women by becoming that city’s first female leader.
“Of course,” she said then. “It’s historical. I won’t downplay it. We’ve been a city since, what, 1849? And I’m the first woman? There were a lot of stereotypes that had to be overcome. Sexism is still alive and well in some places. I have some great ideas how to get young girls engaged in local government and educate them and say, ‘This is possible. If I can do it, you can do it.’”
The announcement video features her family, including her husband, Steve Kaufusi, a former BYU football player and coach who played two seasons in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles. Two of her five children, sons Bronson and Corbin, play professional football for the New York Jets.
“To say the Kaufusi team is in 100% is a big deal,” Huntsman says on the video as Kaufusi jokes, “I don’t know about a big deal but they’re big people.” Huntsman added that the mayor “brought the same energy and passion to the city of Provo in your leadership that your family has to the gridiron.”
In her third year of a four-year term, Kaufusi told the newspaper she’ll continue serving as mayor while running for lieutenant governor.
“I am all in on the campaign, and I’m also all in as the Provo City mayor. It’s exciting. I love to work fast and furious and I’m a hard worker. I’m a mom. I multitask really well,” she said. “You’ll see me at the City Council meetings. You’ll see me in the halls of my office,” as well as campaigning around the state for Huntsman.
In a message posted online to Provo residents, Kaufusi said she has “shed many tears in reaching this difficult decision. Serving as your mayor has been my favorite job ever, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever enjoy another position more,” before spelling out she is not resigning.
“In less than five months, we should know the primary election results, and that will tell us a lot. And even if I should be elected to statewide office, my plan would be to continue to serve as mayor until it’s time for my transition,” Kaufusi wrote.
There are six Republicans running for governor — Huntsman, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and businessman Jeff Burningham.
All but Hughes, who is competing to advance to the primary only at the Republican Party state convention, have opted to gather voter signatures to qualify to run in the June 30 election.
Wright was the first candidate to name a running mate, choosing U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. Bishop, who had already said he would not run again for Congress, considered making his own bid for governor before joining Wright’s ticket.
Huntsman was first elected governor in 2004, with now-Gov. Gary Herbert as his running mate. Herbert became governor in 2005, after Huntsman stepped down after winning a second term to become U.S. ambassador to China under then-President Barack Obama and later, as U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Donald Trump.
Herbert is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office.
Burningham’s campaign manager, Adrielle Herring, took a jab Friday at Huntsman’s having left the governor’s office, saying, “Any running mate of former governor Huntsman should be scrutinized as if they were running for governor, because they likely will be governor when he leaves Utah again for his next big political move.”
Huntsman said “that’s jumping to an unfair conclusion. The work that we will do here as governor, staring down the most important decade I think this state has ever confronted, is the work that’s most important to us. And we will be here.”