Webb: Politicians always seem to get better after they've been dead for a while. It's interesting how some pundits gush over past politicians and how terrific things were in the good ol' days.
The reality is that we've never had better political times in Utah, or more wealth and opportunity than we have right now. That is a tribute to a lot of past and current political leaders who have kept the ship of state on course with fiscal prudence and necessary investment in the societal underpinnings of education and basic infrastructure.
I respect as "political pioneers" leaders who take on big projects and tough issues, who tackle the most challenging problems, who aren't simply status quo caretakers. I like politicians who stick their necks out, risk political capital, and go against the grain. Even when they fail, the attempt is almost always worthwhile.
Here are some political pioneers:
Rocky Anderson. He's a pioneer even though I disagree with him on an array of policy issues and on his style of leadership. He's an unrepentant liberal among conservatives, a politician with tenacity who follows his passions and doesn't read polls.
Jon Huntsman Jr. While it's too early to judge, he shows promise with his advocacy of tax reform, a tough issue that will require exposing some political capital and taking some criticism. With the cool breeze of a red-hot economy at his back, he could easily take the easy way and coast. We'll see.
Mike Leavitt (my old boss). Clearly Utah's "big idea" governor, a veritable fount of bold and ambitious new initiatives, many with national implications. He was criticized, incorrectly, for being too careful and not spending political capital. In reality, he worked so hard and was such a consensus-builder that he made tough initiatives look easy. He was smart enough to avoid political brick walls, but he took on some incredibly tough issues: a major national federalism initiative, his environmental doctrine called Enlibra, total revamp of welfare and the Department of Workforce Services, his HealthPrint health care reform, Centennial Schools education reform, the online, competency-based Western Governors University, and others.
Norm Bangerter. A political pioneer for courageously raising taxes to avert an education funding crisis; for placing expensive pumps on the Great Salt Lake to avoid a flood crisis (and then the rains stopped).
Pignanelli: Republican U.S. Sen. Arthur V. Watkins agreed, in 1953, to chair the committee to investigate the improper conduct (unsubstantiated accusations of communist sympathies by government officials) of his colleague, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. This was a brave move, because McCarthy was popular in Utah. McCarthy ridiculed the Watkins committee, which recommended censure of the famous witch hunter, as the "handmaid of communism." Conservative Republicans never forgave Watkins and supported Gov. J. Bracken Lee (a Republican, running as an Independent) in a three-way 1958 Senate election-guaranteeing victory for the Democratic nominee Ted Moss.
In 1974, freshman Democrat Congressman Wayne Owens was one of Utah's most popular elected officials. A member of the House Judiciary Committee, he was privy to the tape recordings of President Richard Nixon when discussing Watergate activities. Owens, deeply disturbed by the president's statements, voted in the committee for three articles of impeachment against Nixon. For acting upon his conscience, Owens was roundly criticized.
Governors Calvin Rampton and Scott Matheson effectively eliminated potential appointments to presidential Cabinets and other posts through their active criticism of Republican and Democratic activities in federal government.
In the late 1980s, few recognized (including this obnoxious lawmaker) the leadership qualities of Gov. Norman Bangerter. Ignoring favorability ratings, Bangerter made tough and unpopular decisions. He worked tirelessly to persuade GOP legislators to set aside their normal inclinations and help him expand the tax base to maintain education and government services.
Democratic Rep. Kurt Oscarson was a charter member of the Sports Authority Board. Long before the "IOC bribery" controversy, Oscarson was relentless in his questioning of public funding for Olympic sites. tah's taxpayers still enjoy the protective measures that Oscarson pushed in the Legislature.
During the 1970s, John Florez and Alex Hurtado were political activists of Mexican-American descent who openly proclaimed the Republican Party was more in line with Latino ideals than the Democrats. Their "betrayal" generated outrage, especially when they hitched their wagon to Orrin Hatch and Ronald Reagan. However, their actions now provide bipartisan political opportunities to today's Latinos.
Republican LaVarr Webb was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. He now is a political consultant and lobbyist. E-mail: [email protected]. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. A former candidate for Salt Lake mayor, he served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. Pignanelli's spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail: [email protected].