Is Mitt Romney's loss Utah's loss? Mike Leavitt, other Utahns were poised to make an impact
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt said he was optimistic Mitt Romney would win Tuesday's presidential election, but acknowledged that might have been because he was in charge of planning for a Romney victory.
Even Romney's staunchest supporters began to lose hope before it became clear President Barack Obama had been re-elected to a second term. At the Utah GOP election night bash at Salt Lake City's downtown Hilton, the crowd found few opportunities to cheer on their unofficial "favorite son" candidate.
For Utah, a Romney loss means no exodus of the state's top talent to Washington, D.C., to join a Republican administration, and no additional influence on national policy from the Republican-dominated state.
Leavitt, who arrived in Boston midday Tuesday from Romney's Washington, D.C., "Readiness Project" office, said his role as head of the transition team may have made him more upbeat then others as he awaited the voters' verdict.
"I've had the privilege of getting up every morning for the last six months with the assumption that he would win," Leavitt told the Deseret News. "And it was my job to be ready."
Leavitt, widely viewed as Romney's choice for chief of staff, said when he was tapped to lead the transition team earlier this year, he signed an eight-month lease on a place to live in Washington, D.C., that's up just after Inauguration Day.
He declined to speculate on his political future, insisting his plan has always been to return to Utah and his health care consulting business once his work on the transition was completed, whether that turned out to be on Election Day or Jan. 21.
Now Leavitt and the Romney team will recalibrate and point to a different future.
"It's been a very rewarding thing," Leavitt said of his role in making sure Romney, a fellow Mormon whom he considers a friend, would have been prepared to take over the White House from President Barack Obama.
A tentative calendar prepared for Romney through Inauguration Day was booked solid with meetings intended to build a new administration that had been expected to include not just Leavitt but other Utahns in prominent roles.
Romney would have hit "the ground running," said Fraser Bullock, head of a Utah-based private equity firm and the chief operating officer under Romney at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Bullock, in Boston with Romney to watch the returns, had been expected to serve Romney on budget issues. "It's an opportunity lost," Bullock said. "I feel for Mitt. I feel just as badly for our country because we really needed him."
Before flying home to Utah Wednesday, Bullock said he planned to have brunch with Romney. "He gave everything possible," Bullock said. "I just want to thank him for what he did and how hard he tried."
Other Utah names that had been on Romney’s shortlist for filing 100 top-level slots were Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a top surrogate on the campaign trail for the past year; and Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime supporter.
“There’s a political benefit to having worked shoulder-to-shoulder to help somebody get elected,” said Chaffetz, who had been mentioned as a possible communications director in a Romney White House due to his frequent dealings with the national media.
Chaffetz, who won re-election Tuesday to a third term, said he had hoped to play a pivotal role in Congress for the Romney administration, possibly as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Now he returns to a divided Congress and what he fears will be continued gridlock.
"A Mitt Romney presidency would have been such a boon for Utah," Chaffetz said. "We're going to stand true to our principles, but it's going to make things in Utah much more difficult, the whole spectrum, from our financial future to state lands — you name it."
Jowers, a member of a well-connected Washington, D.C., law firm who ran Romney's political action committee in the 2008 campaign, said he would have been willing to do whatever the new president needed. His name had surfaced as a possible deputy chief of staff.
"I am devastated," Jowers said from Boston. "Mitt Romney was the right man to solve the challenges facing America. He ran an honorable campaign and all of his supporters can be proud of their support for a good man."
The impact of a Romney win on Utah, now lost, would have gone beyond familiar faces in the White House.
Utahns had high expectations that their strong support of Romney throughout both his presidential runs, including more than $8 million in campaign contributions this election alone, would pay off, University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said.
"It's not Romney's home state, but in many ways, that's the position Utah is in," Burbank said, which would have extended a voice to a state often ignored because it can be counted on to vote Republican.
Gov. Gary Herbert said he had hoped to be able to deal with key players in the administration from Utah as well as a new president who also understood the state, having lived here as a Brigham Young University student and later as the 2002 Olympic leader.
Utah would have had "lines of communication that have already been opened in a significant way," Herbert, a Republican, said, allowing the state to be heard on issues like public lands and energy development where there has been disagreement with Democrats.
The governor took the stage at the Utah GOP party to celebrate his own victory just as the presidential race was called for Obama.
"It is what it is," Herbert said later. "I'm just as deflated as anybody. We're all big Mitt Romney fans here....He has the same principles he was espousing that we have here in Utah. It would have been a great turnaround for the country."
Herbert backed Romney four years ago as former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s lieutenant governor, even though Huntsman surprised Utah's GOP establishment by campaigning for the GOP's 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Huntsman had at one time been seen as a longshot for Secretary of State in a Romney administration given a resume that includes serving as U.S. ambassador to China, but that was seen as highly unlikely since his contentious bid for the White House this year.
It was another Utah governor, Leavitt, who recruited Romney to come to Utah from Boston to take over the troubled Salt Lake Olympics, a role that made Romney a national figure and set him up to become governor of Massachusetts and later, to launch his bids for the White House.
Bullock said Romney likely would have visited Utah more often than past presidents. Romney, he said, "has a very fond spot in his heart for Utah. Whenever I talk to Mitt about his time in Utah, he says that was the high spot in his career."
Before coming to Utah to run the Olympics, Romney and Bullock worked together at Bain Capital in Boston. Over the years, Bullock said he and Romney talked “a few times” over the years about his working for a Romney administration but never discussed a specific job.
“I let Mitt know that if he would like me to assist him, I would be happy to do so,” Bullock said. “Who knows at what level. If I could just have an impact in helping to come to terms with the budget, the deficit, that would be something where I could contribute.”
The transition team was “looking for highly talented, capable, energized people. But within that, you’re looking for different sectors of expertise,” Bullock said, providing a balance between experience with Romney and experience with Washington, D.C.
That’s the same approach Bullock said he and Romney took in staffing the Olympics in Salt Lake City. But now they will not have the chance to employ that strategy in Washington, D.C.
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