Gary vs. Goliaths

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County Commissioner Gary Herbert hopes to be the first governor from Utah County — but he faces well-known opponents

By Jeanette W. Bennett

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The Gary Herbert family. Top row from left: son-in-law Ben Cahoon, daughter Heather Herbert, Gary, son-in-law Casey Child. Middle row from left: son Nathan Herbert, daughter Kimberli Cahoon, wife Jeanette, daughter Shannon Child, son Daniel Herbert. Front row: grandchildren McKelle, Camri and Kylee Cahoon; Calvin and Coby Child. Son Bradley is serving an LDS mission in Puerto Rico.

 

Over Valentine’s Day dinner in 2003, Gary Herbert leaned over to his wife, Jeanette.

“I have something I want to tell you,” he said. “I am going to run for governor. Now should we get the chocolate cake or the pudding?”

The two had previously discussed the possibility of a run for the top state position, but they were both at capacity running their businesses and fulfilling their civic, family and church duties. But Gary was receiving immense pressure to run for the top job by political and business colleagues throughout the state.

“I finally decided that now was the time to run,” he says.

The family spent several months planning their campaign and working behind the scenes before Gary publicly threw his hat in the crowded ring on Oct. 1, 2003.

“There’s no accounting for taste,” he says, in his characteristic humble manner. “But I kept hearing, ‘You are our man.’”

Leadership is nothing new to the longest serving Utah County commissioner — he’s held the position nearly 14 years. The list of titles he has held in the past decade takes more than a single-spaced, double-sided page — National Republican County Official of the Year, Founder of the City-County Coalition, Appointed to Governor’s Clean Air Commission, just to name a few.

“For whatever reason, in every organization I become a part of, my peers say, ‘We will have you be our leader. Herbert, you’re the guy,’” Gary says. “I’d just as soon let someone else run, but I believe there isn’t any other leader on the city and county level who is as prepared as I am for the opportunity. I feel an obligation to run.”

 

Not born that way

Gary’s aspirations did not begin in a high school political science class or by watching President Kennedy as a teenager.

“If you were to ask my classmates from the class of ‘65 at Orem High School to name the person who was the least likely to run for governor, they would say ‘Gary Herbert,’” he says. “I didn’t hardly dare raise my hand in class.”

What Gary may have lacked in the social world, he made up for in the sports arena. Gary was the quarterback of his high school football team and the captain of the basketball and baseball teams. He was a three-sport letterman, which gained him the friendship and respect of his peers. He continues to see life as a game. His favorite sports as an adult have been golf and tennis. But politics became his challenge of choice 14 years ago.

“Like most people, I used to think, ‘Why would anyone want to be a politician?’” he says. He describes his entrance into politics as “a fluke.”

In the late 1980s, he became affected by local political issues and ran for Orem City Council. He lost by 32 votes but developed a passion for analyzing issues and finding solutions.

“I began to see that if you get involved you can make a difference,” he says. “I’m fairly persuasive, so I felt like my voice could be heard.”

Controversy on the Utah County Commission led to Gary putting his name on the ballot in 1989. This time he won the election and began spending an average of 58 hours a week attending meetings, voting on budgets, and solving the economic, transportation and legal issues relating to Utah County, which is one of the fastest growing areas in the nation. Utah County has also been called one of the most efficiently run counties in the nation by the Utah Taxpayers Association.

Now he wants to extend his sphere of influence to the 2.3 million Utahns who he says would benefit from having a “local, grassroots” man as their leader.

 

A ‘no-name’

While his name may be known among business leaders and government officials in Utah County, when you travel past the Point of the Mountain, most people will say, “Gary who?”

Name recognition is not a problem for some of his competitors for the gubernatorial spot. Jon Huntsman, Jr., shares his father’s name and polished reputation. James Hansen, long-time U.S. congressman from Davis County, also has the advantage of being pictured and quoted in the media statewide for the past several decades.

Gary is aware of his long-shot position.

“In many ways, it feels like David vs. Goliath,” he has been known to say. “But I’ve read the book, and David wins.”

The optimism Gary exudes is not a new characteristic he picked up on the way to sign up for the race for governor. It is part of his innate personality.

“What is not to be optimistic about?” he says.  “There are opportunities everywhere. I’m ‘Pollyanna’ in a lot of ways.”

Gary’s natural optimism and “people-person” qualities may stem from his father, Duane Herbert, who has developed his own reputation as an honest, hardworking “do-er.”

“My father is the only man I’ve ever known who became the president of the PTA,” Gary says.

Duane also served as the president of the Provo/Orem Chamber of Commerce, as one of the founders of the Utah Valley Home Builders Association, and was selected as Builder of the Year by his UVHBA peers.

“My dad was a common laborer at Geneva Steel, and he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and has made an incredible contribution to the valley,” Gary says. “He is inspirational and has taught me by example.”

 

Utah County launchpad

State offices have been hard to come by for Provo-Orem politicians. If Gary is elected, he will be the first governor to hail from Utah County, although we are the second most populous county in the state. (Governor Clyde was born in Utah County but was living in Logan when he was elected.)

“There is a misperception outside of the county that everybody down here is extremely right-wing,” Gary explains. “They think we have a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. It is true that more than 88 percent of our residents are LDS, but I believe we tend to be rational people.”

Traditionally, candidates for governor want to spend the majority of their time campaigning in Salt Lake County, which has the highest number of delegates and registered voters.

“If you overlook Utah County, you’re making a big mistake,” Gary says. “Utah County may well be the factor that determines the result of this race for governor.”

Gary knows Utah County isn’t a “given” in his own race for votes, but he can envision a gameplan that would allow him to be the top vote-getter.

“Initially, people might say, ‘Gary is a great guy but he is crazy to think he can win this race,’” Gary says. “But I think we’re past that phase. People are beginning to say, ‘It is a long shot, but he has a chance.’”

Some political leaders are more skeptical.

“Gary Herbert is a fine individual,” says Todd Taylor, executive director for the State Democratic Party. “But his politics have been in an area where there has been little give and take. Everyone is entirely on one side of the fence. I’m not sure I see him being competitive with the rest of the field because of that.”

The rest of the state sees Utah County as the conservative hot spot in a conservative state.

“The problem for Utah County is that it’s a noncompetitive political atmosphere, much more so than the rest of the state,” Todd says. “And Utah County is large enough that it’s noncompetitiveness affects the rest of the state.”

Utah County Commissioner Steve White, who has served with Gary for the past year, calls Gary a “peacemaker.”

“Gary tries to find the common ground when there is a disagreement,” Steve says. “He comes prepared with notes and concerns about issues.”

White believes Gary’s chances for governor come down to if he can garner the support of the delegates, and Steve believes Gary will do well in rural Utah and Utah County.

“Money isn’t a big factor in who gets the delegate votes,” Steve says. “Money is a factor in the primary election and general election. But whoever gets the Republican nomination will have plenty of money.”

Regardless of political fences, everyone agrees that this governor’s race will be thrilling to watch.

“This is the first time it’s been an open seat for 12 years,” Todd says. “This is going to be a fascinating race.”

 

Rubbing two nickels together

Pollster Dan Jones has predicted that it will take $4 million to make a successful bid for governor.

Gary’s campaign plans will cost him nearly $1 million for bills such as polling, travel, advertising, salaries and more.

“We won’t have a big budget,” he says, sitting in his bare but functional office off State Street in Orem. “We will have to get our message right the first time, because we can’t afford to make any mistakes.”

Gary’s political and personal record have gained him friends who are contributing to his cause and putting their efforts behind his.

“I don’t want to sound like a name dropper,” Gary says, “but we are getting more people on board every day.”

If it weren’t for Gary’s confidence and strong sense of self, he wouldn’t seem like much of a political threat. His humility and desire to find common ground make him seem like more of a gospel doctrine teacher, which he is, than a governor-wannabe, which he also is.

“I don’t have many enemies,” Gary says. “I’m sure there’s somebody out there who doesn’t like me, but I enjoy working with people and feel like I’ve been able to build consensus.”

But even the best candidates often don’t have the dough to make a successful rise to governor.

“In politics, the best people don’t always win,” he says. “It has become a game for the rich, which doesn’t necessarily serve our best interests.”

But Gary says he has done the math on the race, and there’s more to it than bank balances. Delegates who are selected in March at the precinct caucuses will determine who will face off in the Republican primary election.

“I have no doubt that if I could personally speak to each delegate, I could convince each one that I am the most qualified for the job,” he says.”If I can get the majority of the delegate votes in Utah County and rural Utah — as well as a percentage of the Salt Lake delegate votes — I can win this election.”

Gary is confident that if the election were based purely on abilities and experience, he would be Utah’s next governor.

“I am a good manager, and I have good core principles and values,” he says. “For being a shy, bashful guy, I’ve turned out to be someone with moxie who consistently gets put in leadership positions.”

 

Local leadership

Although Gary hopes to oversee the the entire Beehive State, he is quick to point out that local government is truly where the action is.

“The county commission is about as good as it gets,” Gary says. “This is where the rubber meets the road. We can make a tremendous difference in people’s lives, and our decisions have immediate consequences. We’ve done some great things on the Utah County Commission on my watch.”

Gary likes the privacy he is afforded as a local leader who is often quoted in the newspaper but rarely recognized by passersby.

“I like having enough privacy to go down the street to Wendy’s and get a bite to eat,” he says. “I would miss that if I were to become governor.”

But what keeps Gary on the ballot is his love for issues.

“There aren’t easy answers, but I enjoy talking through issues and finding solutions,” he says. “For example, transportation. In Utah County, we are way behind the curve. We need to step up and understand that there are no easy solutions. You should elect me if for no other reason than I will fix I-15.”

Gary’s work ethic began when he was selling real estate as a young man who looked even younger.

“I always wore a suit and tie so I would look more credible as I gave others advice on real estate,” he says. “I only got paid if I produced. When I became the county commissioner, I would often forget to pick up my paycheck because I wasn’t used to the consistency of getting paid.”

Regardless of whether Gary becomes governor, he will end his commissioner duties at the end of 2004.

“I may have a lot more time for golf depending on how things turn out,” he quips.

Gary doesn’t see this race as a warm-up to the 2008 gubernatorial election.

“This is my time to run for governor, — it’s now or never,” Gary says, then quickly adding, “although I should never say never.”

Gary wants the job now because he has ideas for the top three issues facing the state: education, transportation and the economy.

“It can be difficult for politicians to have vision,” he says. “For example, if a politician had been responsible for creating a freeway along Utah County’s mountainside – say from Alpine to BYU — we’d erect a statue in their honor at city hall. But that politician would have been voted out of office because the taxpayers at the time wouldn’t have seen the immediate benefits. Politicians struggle to have vision and act on it. Voters don’t always want to look down the road.”

 

 The better half

Jeanette Herbert is supporting Gary’s run for governor as she has with his other pursuits. But this position would also involve her — she would be the state’s 1st lady.

“I would enjoy being a family advocate,” she says. Jeanette was recently named Businesswoman of the Year by the Provo-Orem Chamber of Commerce for her day-care business. “I see first-hand the needs of the children, and I don’t want to see kids suffer.”

Jeanette shares Gary’s optimism.

“With change comes growth,” she says. She dragged her feet for a long time as Gary weighed the idea. She knows there is an ugly side to politics.

“The criticism that comes with public positions can be difficult,” she says. “We realize he cannot please everyone. But I am supportive because he has all of the qualifications that I want for my governor.”

If all goes according to plan, they’ll be having their Valentine’s Day dinner 2005 in the governor’s mansion.

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Gary Herbert enjoys sharing books and music with his five grandchildren.

GARY ON GARY

Age:  56

Favorite quotes: “Work will win when wishy washy wishing won’t.” “Act, walk and talk like you already are who you want to become.”

Family: Wife, Jeanette, six children, five grandchildren

Favorite holidays: Thanksgiving, Fourth of July

Favorite TV shows: Political shows, “which keep me current,” he says, and “SpongeBob SquarePants.” “There’s always a moral to the story,” says Gary, who watches the cartoon while he gets ready in the morning.

Best leadership quality: “I’m a consensus builder,” he says.

Favorite family activities: Lake Powell, Bear Lake; Watching son-in-law Ben Cahoon play for the Canadian Football League.

Life before politics: Realtor

Favorite reading material: “Free to Choose” by Milton Friedman and “The Economist”

Current position: Utah County Commissioner, immediate past-president of the Utah State Association of County Commissions and Councils

Favorite dinner: blueberry muffins, hot chocolate and Jimmy Dean sausages

Daily reading regime: Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, Daily Herald

Music collection: “I’m a ‘greatest hits’ kind of guy — I don’t like to go through the weeds to find the flowers,” he says. Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits, The Lettermen, Beach Boys and Beatles are among his favorites.

Hidden Talent: Trumpet

THE HORSE RACE

Candidates cannot officially file to run for governor until March, but here are those who may be running for the big seat.

Lane Beattie, Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce President, former Utah Senate president

James V. Hansen, former Congressman, Farmington

Parley Hellewell, state senator from Orem

Gary Herbert, Utah County commissioner, Orem

Jon M. Huntsman Jr., former U.S. trade ambassador, Salt Lake City

Creg Jensen, Layton

Nolan Karras, former House Speaker, Roy

Fred Lampropoulos, medical supply company chairman, Salt Lake

Richard Mack, Provo

Scott M. Matheson Jr., dean of the University of Utah law school, Salt Lake City — the only Democrat planning to run as of press time

Marty Stephens, speaker of the Utah House from Farr West

Gov. Olene Walker, current interim governor in Utah

THE RACE FOR THE GOVERNOR’S MANSION

March 8-17  Candidates officially file with the state to run for governor

March 23  Precinct caucuses are held; the 1,900 precincts in Utah will select a

representative for the county convention and the state convention

April County conventions take place throughout the month

May 8  State Republican Convention and State Democratic Convention; if a

candidate receives 60 percent of the delegate votes, he will be the party’s

candidate and avoid the Primary election; if no one receives 60 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face off in the Primary election

June 22  Primary election; Only those who are registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary. Those who are “unaffiliated” will be turned away. The Democratic primary is not a closed primary.

Nov. 2  General election

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