Tom Smart, Deseret News
Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah governor and GOP presidential candidate, talks during an interview May 1, 2012, in Salt Lake City.
We are the envy of the world because somehow, someway, despite our faults, despite the barriers, we can bring folks together. —Jon Huntsman Jr.

SALT LAKE CITY — Jon Huntsman Jr. made a visit to Utah on Thursday, adding recipient of the Allies for Equality Award to his resume at Equality Utah's annual fundraiser and gala.

Huntsman is the first Utah governor to receive the award.

The former Utah governor, ambassador to China and presidential candidate was the keynote speaker at Equality Utah's annual Allies Dinner, with attendance topping 2,000. Huntsman was among those who pointed out that the first such dinner took place in the back room of a Denny's restaurant.

Before the event, Huntsman said he is "ready to continue talking about what I've always talked about," maintaining his support for civil unions and fairness under the law. When asked about a possible step toward endorsing gay marriage, Huntsman said equality needs to be the ultimate goal.

"I don't know what the destination is," he said. "It was a great leap to talk even about civil unions at the time. What's important here is people having a conversation about inclusiveness and about fairness and about equality under the law.

"It's hard to know what the wrapping looks like, what the definition or the term happens to be, and each state might end up doing it a little differently, but the end point ought to be fairness under the law."

Huntsman echoed those sentiments during his address.

"We are the envy of the world because somehow, someway, despite our faults, despite the barriers, we can bring folks together," he said. "It might not happen as fast as everybody would like, but we keep at it, and we stay focused on the goal, which is equality under the law."

Huntsman's remarks had humorous moments as well, as he related his experiences being mistaken for a local weatherman, an interview on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" and joked about his experience as a "failed politician."

The crowded ballroom raised a chorus of "No!" to that remark, which drew a laugh from the Republican.

The former presidential candidate commented on the divisive attitude arising in American politics, attributing the change to super PACs, big money, media extremes and professional politicians.

"The whole country is divided," he said. "And you all gathered here to focus on unity — how cool is that?"

Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, said the growth the Allies Dinner has seen is representative of growing support in Utah.

"It demonstrates a rapidly increasing amount of support amongst average, regular Utahns who really understand this is about basic human rights," she said.  

Balken was among those who helped welcome Huntsman to the stage, championing his support of LGBT rights during his time as governor.

Mary Kaye Huntsman spoke passionately about the perils that come when tolerance is not present in schools, relating a story of the tragic end that sometimes comes from bullying and bigotry. She received one of the night's many standing ovations at the close of her remarks.

"We can do better. We must do better," she said. "Each of us goes down a different highway in life, whether it be with religion, sexual orientation, politics or other facets of life, and with that comes the need to love more unconditionally rather than just conditionally."

Jared Ruga, a Salt Lake City resident and law student at the University of Utah, said Huntsman represented his dedication to his personal principles in Thursday's remarks.

"I think that he represented some of the core values of Utah as more of a unified and progressive state than most of the nation tends to associate with our state," Ruga said.


Twitter: @McKenzieRomero