One way to gauge the future trajectory of a state is by taking inventory of its rising political leadership. By this measure, Utah is most certainly (cue the baritone voice-over from Allstate’s commercials) in “good hands.”
Indeed, most of Utah’s rising political “juniors” are either already playing varsity or have long since graduated to the big leagues.
Certainly, the most senior of the “juniors,” former Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr., falls within this latter category.
Huntsman, who now lives once again in Utah, is of course “junior” in name only (despite the fact that, at 56, he remains younger than most sitting state governors).
Utah’s twice-elected chief executive is not only one of the nation’s most seasoned diplomats — having served two ambassadorships in Asia — but he’s also sought-after for his business experience. Huntsman recently told the Deseret News he may have one more run “left in his bones.”
His supporters are hoping it’s a bid for the Senate in 2018.
The only political brand name with as much local cachet as Huntsman is, of course, Romney.
And Mitt Romney’s most likely successor in politics is his middle son, Josh. A Utah resident and a successful real-estate investor, Josh Romney followed his father’s footsteps to Brigham Young University and then to Harvard Business School. He graduated with an MBA and a jaw even squarer than his father’s.
Romney now looks to be following his father’s footsteps into politics. Having served as a political adviser for Gov. Gary Herbert, the 41-year-old told the Deseret News he’s “strongly considering” a gubernatorial bid of his own in 2020.
If Huntsman made his name in politics and Josh Romney in real estate, Matthew S. Holland has made his name in both — after all, to thrive as a modern university president, one must be as much of a skilled politician and real estate developer as an educator and scholar.
Holland, who followed his own father’s footsteps into academic administration, has yet to declare his candidacy for anything except the post of contented cheerleader for Utah Valley University’s basketball team (although his Wolverines have slid into a mediocre record of late, earlier this year they thoroughly thumped BYU and nearly defeated both Utah and Utah State).
Despite Holland’s genuine insistence that he has more work to finish at UVU, those who want to see a Ph.D. in office have eagerly floated his name for every political position from senator or congressman to lieutenant governor or governor.
Holland, for his part, was recently named Executive of the Year by the national publication Education Dive. The plaudit is much deserved for what he’s done to take UVU from something of a flyover school to Utah’s most promising model for modern higher education, accommodating the state’s largest student body while delivering an affordable education.
Utah’s junior Sen. Mike Lee is, of course, the brother of Utah Supreme Court Justice Thomas Lee and the son of former U.S. solicitor general and founding dean of the BYU Law School, Rex E. Lee. Now entering his second term, Lee has developed a national reputation not only as a state’s rights advocate and a deeply devoted Constituionalist — both he and his brother’s names have appeared as possible Supreme Court picks by President Donald Trump — but Lee has also cultivated a well-founded reputation as a solutions-oriented senator, interested in finding sustainable fixes to vexing problems such as intergenerational poverty and diminishing opportunities for society’s most vulnerable populations.
Not to be overlooked is Spencer Eccles. Beyond being an Eccles family scion, with degrees from both the University of Utah and BYU, Eccles is the co-founder of The Cynosure Group, a Salt Lake City-based long-term equity investment firm. He previously served as executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and as chair of the Governor’s Economic Council. There’s speculation he too may make a bid for governor at a future date.
Huntsman, Romney, Holland, Lee and Eccles. These five families, like all families, are not devoid of flaws — but each has exemplified Utah’s virtues of hard work, sacrifice, charity and public service. Some will undoubtedly feel uncomfortable that five of the state’s most promising political leaders descend from prominent Utah surnames. Yet, as New York Times columnist David Brooks reminds us, many of America’s “greats” came from not-so-dissimilar families, where they “were infused with a sense of obligation and responsibility to perform public service.”
Brooks points to the likes of the Roosevelts and Kennedys, among others. That Utah has its own rising political class who have learned what it takes to lead and yet still understand what it means to serve is something to celebrate rather than scorn. There are perils to privilege — whether financial or educational. Such circumstances can create blind spots to the plight of those who are left behind. Yet, in this regard, there are few families with better training on how to check the mirrors to not miss those who suffer in society’s peripheries.
Of course, these are not the only names percolating in the political atmosphere.
Names like Rep. Mia Love, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Mayor Ben McAdams, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Evan McMullin will also receive mention in my subsequent columns. As an aside, it should be concerning to Utahns that among the state’s ascending political stars only one woman’s name appears on the short list. There are, of course, others who merit making the cut, but there is unquestionably a need for more women in Utah politics. But that’s a subject for another day.
Until then, Utah should focus on finding ways to utilize the talents of this next generation of leadership.