Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Peter Cooke poses for a photo in his office in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 29, 2012.

SALT LAKE CITY — Standing in the shadows of the "This is the Place" momument, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Cooke announced a new volunteer initiative Monday intended to rekindle the values held by the state's Mormon pioneers.

Cooke said he wants to create a state program to help recent college graduates pay down their student loans through two years of community service in schools, hospitals, clinics, non-profit organizations or local government agencies.

While the candidate said the "Utah Service Corps" program would be paid for with private contributions, he was unable to offer any specifics about the cost or just how it would be implemented, describing it as in the "preliminary stages."

He compared his proposal to the Peace Corps, but it also appears similar to the national AmeriCorps program, which also allows some 1,800 participants annually to earn education awards to pay for college or pay back student loans.

Most AmeriCorps funding goes to the governor-appointed Utah Commission on Volunteers that awards grants to non-profit agencies. The program reports that since 1994, Utahns have earned more than $23.7 million in education awards.

Cooke said he was trying to find a way to get Utahns focused on serving.

"We've got to get that voter participation back. We've got to get the people in our state believing in ourselves," he said. "The pioneers didn't ask for help from anybody. These solutions are our solutions. They're Utah solutions."

He also called for the state to require high school students to take a civics class and said he would offer new awards for volunteer service from the governor's office if elected in November.

Cooke praised the Mormon pioneers who followed Brigham Young into the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847 for their hard work, personal responsibility, family, community and service.

"They knew what they were doing," the retired Army general said. "They knew they were building communities not just for themselves or their families, but for the generations in the future."

He said Gov. Gary Herbert's administration isn't doing enough to promote volunteerism. "It's salesmanship, not leadership," Cooke said. "We're being sold a bunch of ideas that we're OK." 

Herbert campaign spokesman Marty Carpenter said the GOP governor "is an outspoken advocate for volunteerism." He said the state's commission on volunteers already helps connect those who want to serve with opportunities to do so.

Calling paying down student loans important, Carpenter said that instead of "encouraging a spirit of entitlements and government programs, Gov. Herbert feels the best way to do that is to build an economy in which graduates can find work and begin to build their financial future."

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