Ted Wilson is well-known to most Utahns. Polls show more than 95 percent recognize Wilson's name.
That's not surprising. He was mayor of Salt Lake City for 10 years. He ran against Sen. Orrin Hatch in a high-profile U.S. Senate race in 1982. He's been running for governor for almost a year now.When you are such a public man, a persona grows around you. Sometimes it's pretty accurate. Sometimes it's not.
Wilson is fairly satisfied with how the public sees him. He should be. He leads Gov. Norm Bangerter and independent Merrill Cook in the polls. Wilson's own campaign polling shows people feel good about him.
Still, he doesn't like some of the names he's been called - "lightweight" "Mr. Fluff," etc. - by his opponents.
As one aide said of Wilson during his mayoral years: "Ted isn't just a cute little guy who jogs. He's a thinker." But Wilson has had to fight the too-nice-a-guy image for years.
Wilson is a mild-mannered, easy-going man, quick with a smile. Strangely enough, his sense of humor and general good nature have sometimes been mistaken for frivolity.
"I'm less lighthearted now than 10 years ago," he said. "I don't have less of a sense of humor. But when you're mayor of a city you deal a lot with getting pot holes fixed, gutters replaced. That kind of thing. As governor, or running for governor, you have to worry about getting children educated and how mothers and children can survive on welfare. The issues are more serious, and, I guess, you are, too."
Wilson is a home-grown boy. Born in Salt Lake City, he attended local schools, graduating from South High School. His high school and college years had a great effect on him. Wilson's father died suddenly of a heart attack when Wilson was 14. "I remember starting South High in 1954 and being frightened, for some reason. I'd never been frightened in my life, but for some reason I was really worried about my ability to fit in. Being popular, in the 1950s, was very important."
He went a bit overboard. He went out of his way to become popular - a cheerleader in high school and college - and his grades suffered.
After "taking it easy" for the first two years at the University of Utah, Wilson's life changed. He met his wife, Kathy Carling Wilson, at a social function and started thinking about marriage.
Soon after, his National Guard unit was called into active duty. "I learned responsibility." Returning to the U., he married Kathy in 1963, converted to the LDS Church and started some serious studying for a teaching degree. "My life settled down."
But not to the ordinary life. The Wilsons' lives have been anything but that. The young family in 1964 - now with a son - moved to Switzerland for a time, with Wilson teaching skiing and learning mountain climbing from experts. When their second child came along, Kathy wanted to return to Utah.
Wilson started teaching at Skyline High School. Normal enough. But he also became a better and better mountain climber. Soon, he was as good as his Swiss teachers. In the summers he worked in Grand Teton National Park as one of the mountain climbing rangers. Mountain climbing taught Wilson to believe in himself, to plan well, not take foolish risks.
The Wilsons moved to Seattle for a year so Wilson could get a master's degree in economics. They returned, and Wilson went back to Skyline High School.
Looking for something to do during a summer off from teaching, Wilson decided to work on the congressional campaign of a young man running for office for the first time - Wayne Owens. After Owens won, the freshman congressman asked Wilson to be his chief of staff. A year later it was the time of the Watergate congressional investigations, and Owens was on the House's investigatory committee. He was stuck in Washington and couldn't debate Jake Garn, whom he was challenging in the U.S. Senate race, as he wanted. So Wilson stood in for Owens.
"Jake and I debated 16 times. It was the first time I actually thought about running for office myself some day. I was up against the best and I could hold my own," Wilson remembers.
Bolstered by how he'd performed as Owens' surrogate Senate candidate, Wilson, now a Salt Lake County employee, was eyeing the Salt Lake City mayor's race. He decided to run. At a time in the country's political life when older, established politicians were suspect, the young, articulate Wilson beat the older Mayor Conrad Harrison easily.
It was just months after winning the mayor's race that the governorship first loomed into view. "Several people came to me and asked if I would run for governor. I said no. I'd just won the mayor's race. I was green."
After a city scandal in 1979 allowed Wilson to oust the commission and bring in the mayor/council form of government, Wilson started looking for a new challenge. He found it in a 1982 U.S. Senate race against Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Wilson now admits that he really didn't think he could beat Hatch that year. "I figured: you make a good run, you get statewide exposure. Who knows, maybe something happens and you win. If not, you haven't lost anything and other races (like the governor's) may open up later," Wilson said.
He did lose. But he left a good impression in the mind of the public.
In 1984 more people came to Wilson, asking him to run for governor after Democratic Gov. Scott Matheson announced he'd step down. But Wilson had learned a lesson in the Hatch race: the state was going strongly Republican, and the Republicans wanted the governorship badly. "I didn't see a Democrat winning that year."
So he sat it out. Owens was the Democratic nominee and he lost to Bangerter.
Wilson, invigorated for a time after dealing with the flooding in Salt Lake City, was tiring, again, of a job he once found exciting. Some speculated that he might go into business and make some real money. Instead, Wilson was picked to head the U's Hinckley Institute of Politics, a separate political science arm of the university.
He resigned as mayor in 1985, leaving public life for several years. But he kept watching Bangerter. When the governor faltered badly in the polls following a record tax increase, Wilson was ready for his run at the top office.
(This is the last of the three governorship profiles by the Deseret News. Those on Bangerter and Cook ran Monday and Tuesday, respectively.)