2020 Person of the Year: Governor Gary Herbert

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Gary and Jeanette Herbert met when he went through the bank drive-thru where she was a teller. The two have built a life together that has included six children, his career as a real estate agent, her entrepreneurial ventures, and his 11+ years as governor of Utah. They’ve kept their Orem home and Orem roots even while splitting time with the Governor’s Mansion.

 

 

 

By Jeanette Bennett & Ansalee Morrison | Photography by Dave Blackhurst

Gary’s Herbert’s mind is mathematical. In 1990, when this father of six became a Utah County Commissioner, the census reported 263,590 people in Utah County. Thirty years later, Gary recalls that figure to the last digit in his interview with Utah Valley Magazine.

“He has an amazing ability to remember statistics, facts and figures off the top of his head,” says Utah’s first lady Jeanette Herbert.

Gary first appeared on the cover of Utah Valley Magazine in January 2004. At the time, he was leading his own campaign for governor and fulfilling his duties as county commissioner. A few months after the magazine was published, Gary dropped his candidacy for governor to run for lieutenant governor alongside Jon Huntsman Jr. The two won the election and took office Jan. 3, 2005. When Jon left Utah to become an ambassador to China in 2009, Gary stepped up to Utah’s top spot.

“It’s been an improbable journey on my way to something I had never aspired to, but I ended up becoming the 17th governor of the great state of Utah,” Gary says with reverence.

Now as the United States’ longest-serving governor, Gary knows by heart his stats of the state — budgets for education, improved efficiency rates, GDP growth and low unemployment rates. His favorite number to remember is the number one. Utah has received several top rankings since Gary was elected governor, such as No. 1 for volunteerism by nationalservice.gov, No. 1 for entrepreneurs by Amazon, and No. 1 for economic momentum by State Policy Reports.

Utah Valley Magazine is kicking off 2020 by naming Gary Herbert our No. 1 — our very own Person of the Year — as he enters his last year of being Utah’s first governor to hail from Utah County.

Pollyanna-like Positivity

In the late 1980s, Gary ran for Orem City Council and lost by 32 votes. Gary looks at that unsuccessful race as the first step on his gubernatorial journey.

“I was disappointed because I thought I was going to win. In hindsight, I’ve come to believe that if I had won that race, I wouldn’t be governor today,” Gary says. “I would’ve kept my focus in Orem and likely never been on the path to governor.”

That sunny outlook shone in Gary’s interview with Utah Valley Magazine in 2004 when he said, “What is not to be optimistic about? There are opportunities everywhere. I’m ‘Pollyanna’ in a lot of ways.”

After fulfilling two full terms (and a partial term when he first stepped in for Jon) Gary still spends time on the bright side.

“I think our best years are ahead of us. There’s nothing for me to be discouraged about. I certainly understand the practical realities of politics and the challenges we face on many different fronts. I may be hopeful and optimistic, but I’m also practical and a realist. I’m not naive,” Gary says.

Even as he steps away from the governor’s seat, he’s confident that the next person to bear the title will lead Utah into a bright future.

“At the end of the day, in Utah we find ways to come together, to have common sense and to create practical policies that give us good outcomes. That’s what’s happening, and that’s what I’m most proud about. In 2019, we saw the culmination of a lot of collaborative effort,” Gary says. “But I want it to continue into 2020 and 2021 and 2022. I hope whoever takes over my job will build on the foundation in place. There’s no reason we cannot continue to excel as we go into the future.”

No Place Like Orem

While Gary has been governor, the Herberts have split their time between the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City and the home in Orem they’ve owned for more than 40 years. The two travel south on I-15 every weekend to stay in their Orem home for church meetings and their legendary family dinner.

“If there’s ever been an anchor for us, it’s that home in Orem,” Gary says. “That is our home base. It’s the best time of the week for me when we are all together.”

Just as the governor has accommodated and welcomed the growth of the state, the Herberts have accommodated and welcomed growth on their family tree — even expanding the “lanes” in their living room.

Some governors struggle after they leave office because they have to navigate both a geographic and vocational shift. However, Jeanette anticipates their transition will go smoothly because they’ve kept their Orem home and maintained relationships with their long-time friends and neighbors.

“We’re not just governor and first lady. We’re Gary and Jeanette, Brother Herbert and Sister Herbert, or even ‘Hey You.’ It’s helped to keep us grounded and not be caught up in the trappings and some of the self importance that sometimes comes with an elected office. It’s been a real blessing to be anchored in Utah County,” Gary says.

Rooted and Surprised

Because he spends much of his time in the rotunda of the state capitol and the nearby mansion, Gary is regularly astounded by the growth in Utah County when he explores his hometown.

“It’s the fastest-growing part of our state and it’s become the center of economic growth with Silicon Slopes. It really is remarkable when you consider the GDP of Utah County,” Gary says. “The growth of Utah County is just stunning.”

Gary’s roots sink deep into Orem, Utah County, and his pioneer heritage. One of Gary’s grandfathers helped found American Fork.

“We have great reverence for those who went before us,” Gary says. “Often I think about the sacrifices of ancestors on both sides of our family. I hope I can do as much good for those who come after me as those who came before me did for me. Parents, grandparents, pioneers — they’ve all left a great legacy for us to join and emulate.”

Going Public

Being in the constant public eye discourages some officials from going out on the town, but the Herberts still love eating out — whether that’s at Wendy’s or at upscale Valter’s Osteria.

“We decided right off the bat that we were not going to change our lifestyle,” Jeanette recalls. “We found that people might snap a few pictures or somebody will come up and tell Gary he’s doing a good job. We’ve never had anybody really get up in his face. People are very friendly in Utah. And we’ve been blessed to be able to go out there and spend time with them.”

Gary has also kept grocery shopping on his to-do list, usually at Smith’s Marketplace.

“I meet a lot of people. It might take us an extra 15 or 20 minutes to do the shopping because people stop and say hi,” Gary says. “It’s been a tribute to the people of Utah how considerate, respectful and appreciative they are. They know it’s hard work, and they know we’re working hard.”

When Gary and Jeanette meet people from outside of Utah, they often hear compliments that confirm our “Happy Valley” stereotype.

“People will say, ‘I have never met a more friendly or happy people than in Utah.’ These are people who are from all over the west and the east. We’re used to it and we appreciate it so much. For people coming from out of state, the friendliness of our state really stands out to them,” Jeanette says.

Last Lap Around the State

When it comes time for Gary to leave office, he will have been the longest-serving governor in Utah’s history at 11 1/2 years. He also spent four and a half years as lieutenant governor.

“I will have served 16 years in the executive branch, which I don’t know of anybody who’s done that,” Gary says.

Jeanette is quick to say that her man is also the most popular governor. And the numbers confirm her assertion.

“After nearly 16 years in the executive branch of the state and 14 1/2 years as a county commissioner, I have approval rates at 70 percent — which is pretty humbling,” Gary says. “The adage I learned early on in politics was, ‘In politics friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.’ So having such overwhelming support from the public for all these years is humbling and encouraging.”

As the Herberts prepare to lead the state for the rest of 2020, Gary and Jeanette will cherish one more year doing what they love.

“When we look back, we don’t have a lot of regrets. We have both have been able to accomplish some really important things,” Jeanette says.

An Eye for Team

Although he has a thing for numbers, Gary also has a favorite acronym — TEAM, which stands for Together Everyone Achieves More.

“I don’t like to talk about higher office or lower office. All elected officials face the same challenges like constituent services, making good policy and representing the people who elected you,” Gary says.

The governor is grateful for all those who have helped him carry out his goals for the state. He’s especially cognizant of what his senior staff members have done. Gary tells them,  “You’re the ones who make me look good. You’re the ones out there doing the hard work.”

In Gary’s first inaugural address, he spoke of the need for partnerships.

“I said if we will have unprecedented partnerships and work together, we will have unlimited possibilities in what we can accomplish,” Gary says. “And that has proven to be pretty darn prophetic. We’ve developed a spirit of teamwork. Everybody has a role to play and my role is no more important than other people’s roles.”

Gary and Jeanette Herbert are the parents of three sons and three daughters. Their posterity has also grown to include 17 grandchildren. The entire family tree lives in Utah County and gathers on Sunday nights at the family’s long-time Orem home.

Father Doesn’t Always Know Best

Some of Gary’s best advisors are around his Sunday dinner table. He also knows those names and numbers by heart. And the number of members in the Herbert family has increased since the first time Gary’s face first appeared on the cover of Utah Valley Magazine.

In 2004 Gary and Jeanette’s grandchild count was at five. Now it’s grown to 17 with one officially adopted on December 30th. When the whole family gathers, the total comes to 31 — and that number is growing as their grandchildren enter their 20s.

Gary and Jeanette raised their children to value family first and foremost. When Gary took office in 2009, their children rallied and set expectations.

“When Gary first got in office our kids called a little family meeting and basically said, ‘You’re going to be very busy. It’s important for us to spend time together as a family, and you’re going to be a better governor if you keep a balance of the two,’” Jeanette says. “They said, ‘We’re going to make sure that that happens.’ And it has.”

One of the most powerful ways the Herberts have stayed connected is all gathering at Gary and Jeanette’s Orem home every Sunday evening.

“The highlight of our week is when all the kids come over. We love to spend that time with them, to see them interact and enjoy each other’s company,” Jeanette says.

This tradition started before Gary was LG and has become his most important cabinet meeting.

“As busy as we’ve become, we still know what the kids are doing, and they know what we’re doing,” Gary says. “The cousins know each other. We know what the grandkids are doing, the challenges, the ups and downs of life because we get together every Sunday.”

When Gary attends functions as the governor, he often invites as many family members as possible.

For Christmas, Gary and Jeanette surprised their children and grandchildren with a trip to DisneyWorld in 2020.

Mansion Memories

Recently, four of the Herbert grandchildren realized that after grandpa leaves office, they won’t hang out in the Governor’s Mansion anymore. They reminisced and shed a couple tears over the memories of the Christmas chocolate fountain and numerous birthday parties and graduation celebrations.

“It’s been a special place for the family and it holds memories for all of them,” Jeanette says. “We’ve had everything from birthday parties to graduations up here. We just had a big family Christmas party with a hundred people. Being able to experience that and be in this beautiful place has been overwhelming. We both grew up with almost nothing and all of the sudden we’re living in this governor’s mansion. We’ll miss it a lot. But we’ve had experiences we never dreamed of. And we’re grateful.”

The Talk and the Walk

All the positive talk from both Gary and Jeanette is backed by a positive walk. As governor, Gary has emphasized programs and initiatives that mean much to him.

“Pick a subject. We’ve made an improvement in virtually every area you can think of,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we are the promised land, but in virtually every area we are on the right road and headed in the right direction.”

For example, he facilitated billions more in education funding. He’s also proud of facilitating a cultural shift in education which can’t be as easily conveyed with statistics.

“We’ve seen remarkable change. We’re not where we need to be yet, but we’ve changed the culture of public education,” Gary says.

He’s also shifted the culture to welcome refugees with open arms and pocketbooks.

On October 24, Gary sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking for more refugees to come to Utah. The public response was overwhelming.

“Within an hour he had emails from a couple hundred people who were just so happy about that from both sides of the aisle. I think it shows the heart of the people of Utah,” Jeanette says.

Jeanette said that at the annual Zion’s Art Show, a woman approached Gary and said, “I’m a high school teacher and a Democrat. What you did for the refugees — I can’t thank you enough for that.” And then the woman became emotional and said, “I’m so glad to live in this state.”

Gary’s welcome mat for refugees will surely become a powerful piece of his legacy, as will the tweet Gary sent out on Nov. 26: “Breaking news out of my office tonight as we have reached an agreement with multiple stakeholders on a rule that will ban conversion therapy on minors in the state of Utah. #utpol”

This historic tweet received 90 comments, more than 400 retweets and 2.4K likes. Gary likes this math equation.

Know the Numbers

Gary is also very numeral-motivated in matters of efficiency, so Gary set a goal for the state government to become 25 percent more efficient.

“Government is not like the marketplace. We aren’t naturally motivated to be more efficient than competitors,” he says. Still, he wanted the state to do more for less.

Ultimately, the state became 27.4 percent more efficient. Before this initiative, Utah had one state employee for every 117 people. Now there is one state employee for every 151 people, which cumulatively saves the state about $400 million a year. The state of Utah has fewer employees than it did in 2001, even though the population has grown by 900,000 in that time.

Gary knows all those numbers by heart and conjectures that Utah has the most efficient government in the nation.

It All Adds Up

After his 11 1/2 years as governor is complete later this year, Gary will set aside the mansion and the executive power. But he’ll take with him the experiences.

“This year is already bittersweet,” Gary says. “We’re looking forward to our next chapter, but there are things we’re going to miss that are unique to this responsibility that we could not have done any other place. It’s been an improbable journey.”

Gary in Review

  • 1970-1976 — Gary serves in the Utah National Guard
  • Late 1980s — Gary runs for Orem City Council, and loses by 32 votes
  • 1990 — Gary elected as Utah County Commissioner and fills that seat for 14 years
  • October 1, 2003 — Gary announces his candidacy for governor
  • January 2004 — Gary appears on the cover of Utah Valley Magazine
  • April 20, 2004 — Gary drops from gubernatorial race and joins with Jon Huntsman  Jr. as candidate for lieutenant governor
  • November 2, 2004 — Jon Huntsman elected as governor and Gary Herbert elected as lieutenant governor
  • August 11, 2009 — Jon Huntsman steps down from governor seat to be an ambassador to China and Gary becomes the 17th governor of Utah
  • November 2, 2010 — Gary elected in a special election to fill the remainder of Jon’s term
  • November 6, 2012 — Gary is reelected
  • November 8, 2016 — Gary is reelected
  • January 2020 — Gary named Person of the Year by Utah Valley Magazine

We’ve Got the Herberts Covered

Gary and Jeanette Herbert are no stranger to the cover of Utah Valley Magazine. Gary appeared on our January/February 2004 cover — exactly 16 years ago. The focus of the story was on his run for governor, which he ultimately set aside that year to join Jon Huntsman Jr.’s ticket as Lieutenant Governor before later stepping up to the top seat. The photo shoot took place in his Orem home and at the Utah County Courthouse, where he was serving as Utah County Commissioner.

Jeanette Herbert appeared on our annual Women’s Issue cover in July/August 2011. The photo was taken in the parlor of the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Salt Lake City (same location as the photo at the beginning of this post).

Governors of Utah

  • Heber Manning Wells, 1896-1905, Republican, born in Salt Lake City
  • John Christopher Cutler, 1905-1909, Republican, born in England, immigrated to Utah in 1864
  • William Spry, 1909-1917, Republican, a native of England who came to Utah in 1875 and settled in Tooele
  • Simon Bamberger, 1917-1921, Democrat, born in Germany, first settled in Ogden
  • Charles Rendell Mabey, 1921-1925, Republican, from Bountiful
  • George Henry Dern, 1925-1933, Democrat, originally from Nebraska, moved to Salt Lake in 1894
  • Henry Hooper Blood, 1933-1941, Democrat, from Kaysville
  • Herbert Brown Maw, 1941-1949, Democrat, from Ogden
  • Joseph Bracken Lee, 1949-1957, Republican, from Price
  • George Dewey Clyde, 1957-1965, Republican, born in Mapleton but elected from his post at USU in Logan
  • Calvin Lewellyn Rampton, 1965-1977, Democrat, from Bountiful
  • Scott Milne Matheson, 1977-1985, Democrat, born in Chicago, then moved to Cedar City
  • Norman Howard Bangerter, 1985-1993, Republican, born in Granger (now West Valley City)
  • Michael Okerlund Leavitt, 1993-2003, Republican, born in Cedar City
  • Olene Walker, 2003-2005, Republican, born in Ogden
  • Jon Huntsman Jr., 2005-2009, Republican, born in California, then moved to Salt Lake
  • Gary Herbert, 2009-present, Republican, from Orem
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