Back home in Utah again, Gov. Leavitt still serving

Published: Sunday, Jan. 30 2011 1:00 a.m. MST

Michael  Leavitt () Michael Leavitt ()

Deep in the summer of 2003, Gov. Michael Leavitt summoned Lt. Gov. Olene Walker into his office for a private meeting.

The Leavitt-Walker ticket had won three straight statewide elections, the pair working together efficiently for more than a decade despite being separated in age by more than 20 years. Among many notable achievements, they had led Utah during the successful bid for and profitable execution of the 2002 Olympics.

But their paths began diverging the moment Leavitt shared with Walker that he soon would be resigning the governorship of Utah to head up the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. He subsequently asked her to keep the information under wraps until the White House was ready to make an announcement.

"He wanted very few people to know about it until it was actually announced from Washington," Walker recalls. "So I knew about it a month or two before I could discuss it with anyone."

The 72-year-old Walker served out the remainder of Leavitt's gubernatorial term, effectively capping her political career as the first female governor in Utah's history. But the future of Leavitt, then 52, was a much more open-ended matter: Here was a rising star in the Republican Party being summoned to serve on the larger stage of federal politics.

Today, back in Utah seven-plus years after he departed for the Beltway, Michael Leavitt is the newest member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board.

Those who know him say he remains the same visionary, pragmatic leader who literally ushered the Beehive State into the 21st century.

"I think (Leavitt) has the good discernment to understand what can be done in the political process," Walker said. "He's able to function on projects that made sense in terms of getting them completed. ... I'm thinking particularly of building I-15 before the Olympics took place and what needed to be done to have it completed in ample time."

But after his stint at the EPA and four additional years in President George W. Bush's cabinet as the health and human services secretary, Leavitt now boasts the added gravitas of being a preeminent global expert on a wide breadth of critical social issues related to the environment and health care — credentials he leverages to draw attention to the underlying economic problems of our times.

"The challenge for the future is to keep the fundamental values that created (our strong economy)," Leavitt said. "That's become part of what motivates me. As a person who has been honored with the privilege of doing public service and has had a chance to experience things on behalf of other citizens, it has created in me a real obligation to continue to do it even though I am not currently serving in public office."

Leavitt is now back home serving as chairman of Leavitt Partners, a capacity in which he advises clients in the health-care and food-safety sectors. But the scope of his work extends well beyond merely consulting for corporations; he feels compelled to attempt to affect public policy by advising elected officials about issues within his scope of experience that have important fiscal implications.

"My major concern is bringing economic discipline back to the United States. I think government has become too big. It's spending beyond its capacity to sustain, and unless it's changed these patterns have the potential to undermine American leadership in the world. I believe solving that problem is the most important problem facing Americans today."

To that end Leavitt forecasts catastrophic consequences if the U.S. fails to achieve fiscal solvency.

"We have to bring ourselves back into financial discipline or we're going to lose our competitive leadership in the world," he said. "And for a country, competitiveness is like oxygen; you have to have it to survive. If you lose competitiveness in the world, you lose the capacity to develop jobs. If jobs are lost, government derivatives are lost and family incomes are lost.

"It becomes a downward spiral because families lose their income and depend more on the government, and if the government has less capacity then it has to tax more and everything just spirals down from there."

Veteran political pollster Dan Jones places a lot of stock in Leavitt's ability to peer into the future and know what the critical political issues will be.

"I think Gov. Leavitt could always understand the overall issues," Jones said. "A long, long time ago he said he did not enjoy unfunded mandates from the federal government and felt that the states could do a lot of those programs better by themselves. That is a mean issue today. He saw that coming."

Nolan Karras, former speaker of the Utah House and chairman of the state Board of Regents, thinks of consistency when he thinks of Leavitt.

"I think one of (Leavitt's) enduring legacies ought to be simply that he did a great job with the 11 years he served and kept the state in great financial order," Karras said. "We're not a California; we're not a New Jersey; we're not an Illinois; we're not in terrible difficulty. Sometimes you don't get rewarded for keeping things steady and on course, but he deserves a lot of credit for what he did."

Is there another run for political office in Leavitt's future in light of the fact that he still has yet to turn 60 years old? Crazier things have happened.

"(Running again) is something I have no plans for, but I didn't before (running for governor) either," Leavitt said. "I expect I'll be in public service in some way or another. Only time will tell."

e-mail: jaskar@desnews.com

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