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Huntsmen says open primary could be way to engage

Published May 6, 2010 6:47 pm

Party conventions » He urges more political involvement, especially from younger voters.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Just about 48 hours before the Republican and Democratic state party conventions, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said it might make sense to change the system, especially if it gets more people involved in politics.

"The answer simply needs to be: How do you engage more people in politics? And if that's through a direct primary, that needs to be a very serious consideration," Huntsman, who is now U.S. Ambassador to China, said in an interview Thursday.

Opponents of the convention system -- which Huntsman twice successfully navigated to become governor --- say it focuses power in the hands of the party activists and doesn't represent the average Utahn.

A poll by The Salt Lake Tribune found that the Republican delegates are more male, more Mormon, typically have different concerns and are more hostile toward Sen. Bob Bennett than the typical Republican or Utah voter.

In 2008, Huntsman created a Commission to Strengthen Democracy after Utah had the lowest rate of voter turnout in the nation in the 2006 and 2008 elections. He asked members to consider changing Utah's convention system and other ethics and election reforms. The commission didn't make any recommendations on changing the convention system, but Huntsman says change is worth consideration if it encourages people -- especially young people -- to get involved in elections.

"I think the answer to all of these really should come from whatever allows the greatest number of people to participate in the political system," he said. "We ought to figure out how to bring more people, not less, into the political process."

Utah Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen said he respects Huntsman's opinion, but the big turnout to the Republican caucuses -- more than double the turnout in 2008 -- shows that the convention system "does not preclude people from getting involved."

"I still maintain that the system that we have works very well and provides every opportunity for any voter in the State of Utah to participate," Hansen said.

Huntsman, who was in town to deliver the commencement address at the University of Utah on Friday, said he will stay out of the contentious combat among competitors trying to knock off Sen. Bob Bennett.

"I'm not taking sides. I have too many friends in the race," he said.

Huntsman said Bennett has been a capable senator and his two leading challengers both worked for him. Attorney Mike Lee was Huntsman's general counsel and Tim Bridgewater served as the governor's education deputy. He said all three are good men.

Speculation over his future in politics may be rampant, but Huntsman said Thursday he is not looking beyond his current job as ambassador.

"It's a little bit disingenuous to throw something on the table to say you're in or out of anything when you're not considering anything beyond the work you're doing right now," Huntsman said in an interview with The Tribune on Thursday. "It's hard to say where life is going to take you even six months from now, a year from now."

Huntsman deflected speculation about his political potential much the same way he did a year ago, before President Barack Obama picked him as ambassador, when Huntsman was seen in some circles as having a shot at his party's presidential nomination in 2012.

At the time, Obama's chief political strategist said Huntsman was the candidate who scared him the most, and Huntsman was in the early stages of forming a national political action committee.

But the former governor said the talk at the time was overblown.

"It would be stretching credulity just a bit to say we were seriously considering it," he said. While he was involved in the national debate and active in the National Governors Association, "sometimes that can be extrapolated into national aspirations. I'm not sure that was completely fair a year ago. At least it was not anything that Mary Kaye (Huntsman's wife) or I had concluded we were prepared to do."

Huntsman said he sees the current political uprising in the Republican Party growing from concern about the unsustainable government spending. It remains to be seen where the movement takes the party, but he said fiscal restraint will be a key part of the party's future.

Asked if his current boss -- President Obama -- should bear blame for the red ink, Huntsman said it doesn't do any good to point fingers. Both parties contributed to the problem and both will have to tighten their belts to balance the budget, just like states, businesses and individuals have had to do.

Huntsman interview

On Senate race » 'I'm not taking sides. I have too many friends in the race.'

On his political future » 'It's hard to say where life is going to take you.'

On voter apathy in Utah » 'We ought to figure out how to bring more people... into the political process.'