Olene Walker: Legacy without an heir

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

"Olene was very popular, but Huntsman had the name before he even got into politics," said veteran Utah pollster Dan Jones. "It really got controversial. … What really hurt Olene with the Republicans was her stand on (school) vouchers; she stood tough for education, and that was not what the Republicans wanted. So it would've been very difficult for Olene to beat Huntsman in a primary, but I don't have the research to prove that she couldn't have."

However, one poll in particular is enough to fuel speculation of what might have been: in March 2004, the Deseret News reported that in hypothetical head-to-head matchups alternately pitting Walker or Huntsman against Democrat gubernatorial candidate Scott Matheson Jr., Utah voters favored Walker over the Democrat by a significantly larger margin (55-35) than they preferred Huntsman to Matheson (47-40).

If Walker, the incumbent with an approval rating above 80 percent, had found a way to face and best Huntsman in a primary — if, say, she'd started seeking re-election sooner or acquiesced on her stand against school vouchers to be more in line with the state Republican delegates — Huntsman might not be running for president today.

Now retired and living in St. George, Walker still enjoys golfing as often as possible. At 80, she sits in the cart and takes oxygen while the other members of her foursome are hitting.

Since September 2009, Walker has been serving as the Primary president of her LDS ward. For nearly two hours every Sunday, she corrals, coaxes and teaches several dozen children ages 3-11. It's a calling that initially required significant adaptation for Walker — prior to her current church assignment, the last time she'd worked with the children in Primary had been 1968.

If retirement has slowed Walker's mind, it doesn't show. She travels frequently for her work with multiple committees ("I'm involved more than I would anticipate, but I'm willing to be involved so I can't complain"). Also, she stays abreast of politics in the Beehive State — to the extent that, during a recent impromptu phone conversation, she accurately cited from memory several precise statistics about her greatest political passion, education.

"I am concerned about the direction we're going in education, both higher and public," Walker said. "The legislature and everyone keeps saying it's a priority, but if you look at the funding, that's the area that we have decreased significantly (while) we've gone up in other areas like transportation and Medicaid.

"Clear back in the 90s, we were always in the top 10 percent of the percentage of our personal income going to education. We keep claiming that's our priority, but now we're now 27th in the nation in the percentage of our income we pay for education even though we have more children (per capita) than any other state."

Because Walker burst through such significant gender barriers, her place in the history of Beehive State politics is assured. But in some ways, her service eclipsed gender.

"Olene Walker's leadership style throughout her public career was characterized by even-handed, public-spirited common sense," said Leavitt, a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board who was thrice elected governor with Walker as his running mate. "She isn't an ideologue, but it would be a mistake to confuse that with a lack of clarity in her views. Her focus has always been the betterment of Utah, even if that meant political independence.

"Olene's legacy will be defined by a lifetime of relentless advocacy for better education, improved housing and sound economic judgment. She will always be seen as a trailblazer not just for woman, but for all public servants."

Today Utah is one of only five states where no woman holds statewide elected office or serves in Congress. But it wasn't so long ago when multiple women played prominent roles in Beehive State politics. During Walker's first two terms as lieutenant governor, 1993-2001, Jan Graham and DeeDee Corradini served as state attorney general and Salt Lake City mayor, respectively. Also, during 1993-97 females represented Utah in the U.S. House (first Karen Shepherd and later Enid Greene Mickelsen).

Unless and until another Utah woman wins a statewide or federal election, the issues of gender and legacy will remain inexorably intertwined for Walker. Asked to define her own political legacy as Utah's only female governor, her initial response included enthusiasm that a "viable candidate" like House Speaker Becky Lockhart is reportedly mulling gubernatorial aspirations. Then, though, Walker's tone changed course.

"I think there's still some mentality that women aren't capable of serving in those offices," Walker confessed. "I still think there's some concern, and there are some opinions that it's a man's job and only when they don't find a capable man to fill the role will they consider a woman. I think it's tradition that slowly will change, but I'm not certain it's changed sufficiently for a woman to be elected (governor).

"I hope I made some difference. … I hope I'm remembered as a person that cared about Utah and its future. I never felt I was a politician — and that may be naive, but I felt my focus was always on improving the state."

The numbers

426: days Olene Walker served as Utah governor

1: female governors in Utah's history

5: states with no woman in Congress or statewide office (Ga., Miss., Nebr., Utah, Va.)

80: Walker's age today

Email: jaskar@desnews.com

. Twitter: askargo

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