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Gov. Huntsman to be named ambassador to China

Published May 15, 2009 10:45 pm

Politics » Would resign as governor; Obama expected to make announcement today
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. will resign from office to accept President Barack Obama's nomination to serve as his ambassador to China.

Sources told The Salt Lake Tribune that an announcement is scheduled for today. Huntsman is in Washington, D.C., and calls to his spokeswoman and various staffers were not returned Friday night.

Huntsman would still have to be confirmed by the Senate, a process that could take weeks or even months. Typically, governors who have been nominated have not resigned until after their confirmation.

Huntsman was previously nominated by President George H.W. Bush as ambassador to Singapore -- he was the youngest ambassador in over a century --- and later was nominated by President George W. Bush to serve as Deputy United States Trade Representative. He was unanimously confirmed to both positions.

Huntsman, who is LDS, speaks Mandarin Chinese and he and his wife, Mary Kaye, have adopted a daughter from China.

The governor had been scheduled to travel to China next week as part of a delegation of Western governors visiting the nation to discuss climate change, alternative energy and clean air technologies.

That trip was canceled due to concerns by some of the governors over the swine flu outbreak.

Chinese provincial governors are scheduled to visit the state next month for the Western Governors Association conference. He also led a trade mission to China during his first term.

Huntsman would be replaced by Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, who would serve through 2010, at which time a replacement would be elected until 2012.

Contacted Friday evening, Joe Demma, Herbert's chief of staff, said neither he nor the lieutenant governor could confirm the Huntsman appointment.

"The lieutenant governor doesn't have any idea what's happening," Demma said. "He and the governor just got re-elected. He's looking forward to his second term and supporting Governor Huntsman."

When Huntsman ran for re-election last year, there were already rumors that he might be considered for a Cabinet position should Sen. John McCain, who Huntsman supported, win the presidency. He was challenged by his Democratic opponent during a debate to commit to serving out his four-year term and Huntsman responded: "That's exactly what I intend to do."

Huntsman won re-election by a record margin and early this year, a Tribune poll found that Huntsman enjoyed an 83 percent approval rating.

Of late, there has been considerable speculation that Huntsman might become a contender for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2012. He had done speaking engagements recently in South Carolina and Michigan and has been quoted frequently in the national media challenging his party to broaden its horizons.

He caught the attention of Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, who told The Associated Press that Huntsman is a Republican who "seems to understand the party has to adjust -- not stubbornly believe that everything is OK and it is the country that has to change."

U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said he had heard rumors that an appointment was possible, but did not talk to Huntsman or the White House about the move.

"I think this is just a great bipartisan appointment. I think it's just super for Governor Huntsman, as well," he said. "This is a pretty significant appointment in the world of ambassadorships. This is pretty much the top of the list in terms of importance. It's a big deal for him and it's a big deal for our state."

China has been moving aggressively to liberalize its trade policies, opening its doors to other nations. It is one of the United States' most important trading partners. In 2007, the U.S. exported more than $65 billion to China, more than three times the amount as when China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. The United States imported more than $321.5 billion from China in that period, creating a trade deficit of about a quarter of a trillion dollars.

Mike Lee, who was Huntsman's general counsel during part of his first term, said the governor is a "brilliant choice" for the job.

"He is the quintessential ambassador. Everything about him bespeaks diplomacy," he said. "He understands the importance of building relationships and he understands all the protocol issues and knows the language and the culture. ... He's got diplomacy in his DNA."

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland, who was in Washington for party meetings, had not heard about the appointment, but he was not surprised. He said when he was on the same flight to Obama's inaugural the governor told Holland that he had had three serious conversations with the administration about a role in the administration.

During his tenure, Huntsman broke with the Republican orthodoxy, championing issues such as curbing climate change and he recently endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples.

"I think the governor was instrumental" in helping Utah embrace alternative energy, said Sara Wright with Utah Clean Energy. "I think he saw where the industry was headed and saw that Utah had to seize the opportunity that the clean energy economy presents for the state."

In his first term, he signed into law a major tax reform and achieved a partial repeal of the state sales tax on food, saying a full repeal was one of his top priorities in his second term. He recently pushed through sweeping reform to Utah's arcane alcohol laws, aimed at making the state more tourist-friendly.

Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, said the governor's relationship with the Legislature changed during his tenure in office.

"He ran on quite a few conservative principles in the first election but that seemed to have changed over time and I know some positions of late have caused consternation in the minds of many Utahns," he said.

About Jon Huntsman Jr.

Age: 49

Family: Wife, Mary Kaye, and seven children, including two adopted daughters, from China and India.

Profession: Huntsman Chemical companies; first president of Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

Education: Attended Highland High and University of Utah; bachelor's degree in international politics from the University of Pennsylvania.

Political history: Elected in 2008 by a record margin to a second term as governor; chairman of the Western Governors Association; deputy U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush; ambassador to Singapore under President George H. W. Bush (at the time the youngest ambassador in more than a century); worked on campaigns of President Reagan, Bob Dole and George W. Bush and backed John McCain in 2008; legislative intern for Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Hobbies: Mountain biking, playing piano, reading.

Other tidbits: Went on LDS mission to Taiwan; speaks Mandarin Chinese; hates air conditioning -- family has to sneak it on at night.