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Huntsman Seeks to Run on His Record

Huntsman Seeks to Run on His Record

By Erin McPike - March 22, 2011

A funny thing happened to Salt Lake City environmental activist Lynn de Freitas after a new conservative Republican took Utah's top office in 2005 in what is probably the most conservative state in the union: She began getting traction on her pet issue, which is preserving and protecting the ecosystem of the Great Salt Lake.

Lynn de Freitas is executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake. The new governor was Jon Huntsman, who had emerged from a crowded GOP primary in part by being shrewd enough to persuade popular Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert to settle for remaining in the number two spot.

Herbert made it clear he wanted enhanced authority, a condition Huntsman readily accepted. The GOP ticket went on to win 58 percent of the vote, after which Huntsman began fulfilling his campaign promises, starting with expanding Gary Herbert's portfolio. With that simple gesture he began building a legacy as a chief executive who kept his promises and began systemically practicing the politics of inclusion.

You sometimes wouldn't know it by the fault lines in modern American politics, "Conservative" and "conservation" are cognates - words with a common ancestor - but Huntsman's method for dealing with the issues of the Great Salt Lake was simple. He brought competing interests to the negotiating table.

The construction of the 120-mile Legacy Parkway flanking the lake that began under Gov. Mike Leavitt had raised concerns among the environmental community, and rather than undergo a massive legal battle, Huntsman worked toward a settlement, so he brought together the conservationists and the Department of Transportation.

De Freitas explained that Huntsman was the instrumental figure in the completion of the deal: "It proved to be a far better transportation project than it would have been, with enhanced environmental mitigation that we felt was just for the impacts that it would create," she told RCP.

This example - and there would be many others - is why President Obama appointed Huntsman, a Republican, as ambassador to the strategically important nation of China. And it is why many Democrats, including some inside the Obama re-election effort, say privately that Jon Huntsman is one GOP nominee they would rather not face in November 2012.

Diplomacy, vision and long-term planning tend to be the hallmarks of Huntsman's leadership style, according to a handful of Utah activists interviewed by RCP for this story. And it underscores why Obama effectively deported him to China.

The 50-year-old Huntsman has a sparkling résumé, and his record as a former governor of Utah is rife with credentials that would make other fiscally conservative governors with national ambitions salivate. In fact, his four-and-a-half years in charge of the Beehive State were seen by some as so successful that, along with two Democratic governors, Tim Kaine's Virginia and Christine Gregoire's Washington state, - the Pew Center on the States listed Huntsman's Utah as one of the nation's three best-managed states in its 2008 Government Performance Project report.

This doesn't necessarily endear him to conservatives. As a cadre of advisers prepares for a likely Huntsman presidential campaign upon his return from China at the end of next month, the early knocks from some GOP activists is that he literally is the Manchurian candidate - that he is too moderate on his own to win a Republican primary, and that his ties to Obama should be disqualifying. In much the same way, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has had to endure scorn for suggesting that social conservatives table their concerns while government officials deal with the country's economic crisis, but the Hoosier keeps on turning up in the national debate as a serious contender for the way he's elevated his state economically due to his own governing successes.

For his part, Huntsman likely would occupy the same terrain in a Republican primary whether or not Daniels runs, and more candidates in that space would complicate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's task of trying to consolidate support among GOP primary voters focused mostly on the economy, which he considers his top issue. To the other Republicans arguing why they should be tapped to lead a continued turnaround of the nation's economy, Huntsman's record may be enviable.

Utah House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, a self-described fan of Huntsman's, put it this way: "He's got the face for TV of Mitt Romney and the mind of Mitch Daniels."

Like Daniels, who implemented a number of reforms in Indiana and saw state funds go from a deficit to a surplus on his watch, Huntsman managed a five-year upsurge of Utah's economy that won his state a host of awards and accolades - just like Indiana.

Part of Pew's rationale in labeling Utah among the country's three best-managed states as of 2008 was that the state administration kept careful watch over its budget even as the national economy fell on hard times. The state's constitution calls for a balanced budget.

"Utah manages itself with savvy business acumen," the report notes. "Financial decisions are made wisely, with an eye toward return on investment and long-term performance in all facets of state government."

Jeff Hartley, a Utah political consultant and lobbyist who was involved on both of Huntsman's gubernatorial campaigns, explained, "In terms of setting good fiscal policy for government and growing the economy, there are few who can show a better case study than Jon Huntsman."

He continued, "The changes he made to state government vastly improved the economy and put the state on the map. Some were subtle and some were substantial, but he helped to facilitate a more friendly climate to businesses, and now they come here and thrive."

When he ran for governor in 2004, Huntsman laid out a detailed 10-point "Plan for Economic Revitalization." In it, he called for restructuring the state's tax system, recruiting businesses to the state, creating a more attractive image for international tourists and making the state government more efficient.

He listed such goals as: "Leverage my international experience with relationships to benefit Utah" and "Secure more federal grant money for Utah companies and projects."

And when Huntsman sought re-election in 2008, he circulated a 16-page progress report on the same 10-point plan from four years earlier to prove that he had accomplished what he set out to do in his first term.

He oversaw a reduction in the sales tax on food and revamped the tax structure to create a flatter tax; the overall savings to taxpayers was $400 million. The document also lists increases in rates of tourism from 2004 through 2007, or roughly the first three years of his tenure as governor, and it cites specific benchmarks of job growth and capital investment.

What's more, supporters of Huntsman's have a five-page document that denotes scores of lists Utah has made for its better business climate.

In 2010, Forbes called Utah the No. 1 state in the country for business and careers. The American Legislative Exchange Council called Utah the top state for expected economic recovery and the best for future economic outlook. The Boston-based IHS Global Insight named Utah as the No. 9 state in the country for highest job creation projected through 2015. And that's just a sampling.

Then there's health care. Whether it's a duel with Romney or Obama, the health care plan that Utah enacted under Huntsman in 2009 could be the feather in his cap - at least with conservatives.

Washington Post conservative columnist Kathleen Parker gushed about Huntsman's health plan in 2009, writing, "Compared to what's being trotted around the Asylum On The Hill, Utah's bipartisan reform project sounds downright dreamy. Simple and geared toward the consumer, it was designed under the operating principle that Americans are capable of making their own decisions, whereas the Obama plan presumes that only government can solve the problem."

Robert Pear, the leading health care reporter for the New York Times, authored a story comparing the Utah plan with the Massachusetts plan in 2010. The key takeaway is that the plans are on opposite ends of a spectrum; that the Massachusetts Connector allows just a few insurance companies to participate in the exchange and does the negotiating, whereas the Utah exchange is guided entirely by the marketplace.

Although, while health coverage in Massachusetts now is near-universal, about 10 percent less of the Utah population is insured. But while the Bay State plan includes an individual mandate that has dogged Romney in his quest to shore up conservative support, Hartley explained that while a mandate was not off the table in the deliberating process over the Utah plan, it was an idea that never got much traction.

Still, Hartley, Hughes and several other Utahns who've been at the negotiating table with Huntsman explained that his inclusive nature, while part of his charm, is also part of the reason why he may be "misunderstood" and labeled a moderate.

As Hughes put it, "It's not a coincidence that he's a diplomat serving our country today. Some see his efforts at diplomacy as a moderated position, but it's just a part of his skill set."

De Freitas, the environmental activist, said that as a voter, she's still paying close attention to how Obama does over the next two years, but she heaped praise on Huntsman.

"I felt as though he really demonstrated commitment to the state," she said, adding that he was "very productive" and "forward thinking."

She said it came as no surprise that someone with such a diplomatic touch would be named to an ambassadorship, but that as for the environmental community in Utah, "We were very sad to see him go."

 

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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