Olene Walker: Legacy without an heir

Published: Sunday, July 10 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

Olene Walker

Ravell Call, Deseret News

ST. GEORGE, UTAH — Every Sunday at church the 15th governor of Utah takes charge of teaching the young children. On the golf course she breathes from an oxygen mask between shots.

In contrast, the Beehive State's 16th governor spends his days crisscrossing the country in private planes as a candidate for U.S. president.

On a macro level the juxtaposition of the two former governors, Olene S. Walker and Jon Huntsman Jr., illustrates how seemingly insignificant developments in state politics can eventually affect an entire nation. For Walker personally, Huntsman's ascension at her expense also offers context as to why her trailblazing political legacy has no heir — at least not yet.

In late 2003 Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt resigned late in his third term in order to head the Environmental Protection Agency. The resignation effectively promoted Lt. Gov. Olene Walker to the top elected office in the state on Nov. 5. Ten days shy of her 73rd birthday, she became the first female governor in Utah's 113-year history.

Having served in the Utah House from 1981-89 and as lieutenant governor for a decade (1993-2003), Walker felt very qualified for her new job. She launched a popular reading initiative and emphasized the importance of education; within months of becoming governor her approval rating had shot up to 81 percent.

Although several months would pass before the issue fully manifested itself, the timing of an early November transition proved highly problematic for Walker. When she moved into the governor's mansion, the 2004 legislative session was set to run from Jan. 19 to March 3. But in order to win a full term as governor she'd first need to survive the staunchly conservative delegates of the May 8 state Republican convention — no easy task for a relatively moderate candidate like Walker even without the tight time crunch she faced.

"I recognize people were somewhat surprised that I had a very slim chance of getting out of convention even though I had a very high approval rating," Walker recalls. "I had a lot of strong support among the mainstream still-conservative Republicans and I had a lot of support among independents, but I understood the realities of having a very conservative group at that Republican convention."

Faced with the choice of focusing on re-election or shepherding the legislative session, Walker ultimately prioritized the state's interests over her own political future and delayed deciding whether to run for governor until after the legislature dispersed. It's a choice she still thinks about today.

"I was very aware that many candidates had spent two years on gaining delegates and impressing delegates," Walker said. "But I was more concerned about proving a woman could be a capable governor than being part of the political process to be re-elected."

Once Walker decided in early March that she would in fact seek re-election, barely two months remained before the GOP convention — precious little time for her to win over enough party delegates. And it showed: she finished fourth at convention (only the top two can advance to a primary). With Walker preemptively removed from the running, Huntsman crushed his opponent in the Republican primary and cruised to a decisive victory in the November general election.

"I think Jon is a good politician who recognized he had to come over as a very strong conservative (in 2004)," Walker said. "Now I think that changed in his second term, but I think at the time he recognized that (reality)."

Whether Walker could have defeated Huntsman head-to-head in a closed GOP primary in 2004 will forever remain unknown; no on-point polling of registered Republicans exists to even suggest an answer to that question.

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