Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is back in the state after serving for two years as U.S. ambassador to Russia. But not only is Huntsman back home, he’s also running for his old job, announcing his gubernatorial campaign Thursday.
Earlier this week on the ‘Trib Talk’ podcast, Huntsman sat down with Tribune reporters Benjamin Wood and Bethany Rodgers to discuss his candidacy, and his position on a range of issues affecting Utah. The conversation was embargoed until he made his formal announcement.
A transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and length, is included below. For the full interview, search for “Trib Talk” on SoundCloud, iTunes and Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify and other major podcast platforms.
Benjamin Wood: Ambassador Jon Huntsman, thank you for joining us today. I’m Benjamin Wood from the Tribune and also with me is Bethany Rogers. To start off today, you’ve recently returned from Russia, which is in the center of all sorts of things happening right now. You’ve spoken to our colleagues in the Utah media about your concerns on the impeachment process. I believe you told the DNews that you’re worried about the rush to impeachment. Has your thinking changed at all or evolved at all as more information has come forward?
Jon Huntsman: No. First of all, I’m troubled, very troubled by the information that has come out with respect to a possible quid pro quo, particularly the work done by [Rudy] Giuliani. I don’t think that has any place in our foreign policy, particularly when you’re subcontracting out those kinds of communications that otherwise ought to be handled on a government to government basis.
We need to hear more. We need folks to come forward with information. We have a whistleblower. We have a statute that protects whistleblowers, that should be respected. We should collect the information, as we always do, in a transparent fashion. We should let the American people look and analyze that information and see where it leads us. But we’re just, I think, in the front end of a lot of this right now.
When I say rush to impeachment, what I would not want to see happen is for the impeachment process to become politicized. Now, when is it not? I mean, we’ve only had four of them in the history of our country. But my fear is that with an election, a national election less than a year away, why not let the people be the final arbiters, the final decision-makers on what they think, once all the information is brought forward?
I think that leaves us in a much better, sturdier position as a country with already a weakened political system because of the hyper polarity. That leaves us in a better place than an impeachment process that ultimately is going to veer toward politics. And people are going to see that. And so I think it just leaves us in a really bad place. If we didn’t have election a year out, maybe the answer would be different. But that’s kind of how I see it.
Benjamin Wood: You started with your concerns about the potential quid pro quo. If that were to be established in fact — that there was a this-for-that agreement, pressure placed on a foreign country asking for political aid — if that were to be established, would that rise to the level of impeachment in your mind?
Jon Huntsman: Well, time will answer that one. I think it’s too early to tell.
Benjamin Wood: And I’m not asking if you think that happened. But I’m saying if that were to have happened, would that be in the class of conversation [for impeachable crimes]?
Jon Huntsman: It depends what the totality of the action was. Was it a conversation and nothing more? Was it tied to the transfer of funds or ultimately military assets that actually were held up or not? We don’t know. At least I don’t know the answers to all of that.
So this is a complicated issue dealing with a complicated country with a newly elected president in a highly volatile part of the world, one where the United States has had an on-again-off-again relationship in recent years. And so there’s a lot that the American people are going to have to look at here, including not just the conversation, but the follow on actions, if there were, in fact, actions that took place. The totality of it.
Benjamin Wood: What do you make of the approach that our state’s federal delegation has taken on this topic? We see a range from Mitt Romney, who has expressed some criticisms, to Chris Stewart, who is a vocal supporter and defender of the president. What do you make of the way that our elected leaders are approaching this subject?
Jon Huntsman: Oh, I think they’re all approaching it in their own way, based upon their temperament, their approach to the administration, their relationship with President Trump. I think there are a lot of variables at play that put people where they are in this particular issue.
And that’s not surprising, because anytime you have something like this, you look back at a recent impeachment trials, whether it was Bill Clinton or whether it was Richard Nixon, our two most recent, and you’re going to find people who take different positions based on different motivations.
But there’s a lot yet to come. And I think the call for transparency, the call for all of the facts is probably the best thing that we can be doing right now in terms of what best serves our national interest.
Benjamin Wood: Our intelligence community has put forth that Russia engaged in an intentional and active campaign of meddling in the 2016 election. Do you see any reason to be skeptical of that conclusion and what do you think it means for 2020?
Jon Huntsman: I do believe they meddled. One of the first things I did when I got my security clearances, as I’ve had done a few times in my career, is to read the comprehensive report done by the intelligence community. Now, in this case, the intelligence community, the DNI, the director of national intelligence has about 17 or 18 component parts. Some of them are high profile and well-known to people like the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency. But then there are some smaller players.
It’s rare that they come forward with a consensus point of view. In this case, they came forward with a consensus point of view. So I say, OK, that means something to me. If you got the entire IC, intelligence community, that is saying the same thing, basically.
And so I sorted through the information and it was pretty clear to me that things took place that were aimed at taking us down, at weakening people and our political system. It’s also clear to me that this isn’t the first time they have done that. You can go back to the election of 1976 when Brezhnev supported Gerry Ford, because Gerry Ford was in favor of continuing an arms control negotiation, something that Russia, the Soviet Union then, saw as being in the national interest.
And maybe even before that. You go back 100 years ago to the fall of the Tsarist period and the rise of the communist period after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and disinformation and spinning the truth and propaganda and malign activities in their particular neighborhood. None of this is new. This is a tool box that has existed for some time. And it’s a tool box that is only strengthening with technology that allows — whether the troll farms in St. Petersburg or whether their ability through the GRU, the intelligence arm of their military — to be very specific in identifying targets through cyber means and taking them down through disinformation, through propaganda and other malign efforts.
It’s not going to stop. They’re going to continue. Why? Because they want to see our country weakened. They want to exacerbate the extremes of our political divide. So when we have an incident based on race, a mass shooting, for example, some of the trolls that you see pop up and some of the Facebook messaging is not always from U.S. players. In some cases, they are from foreign players who are mimicking American citizens and trying to play into the extremes of our debates just to divide us further.
It’s a feature that has been a prominent part of their malign toolbox in recent years, and it ain’t going away. This will continue and will continue into the 2020 election.
My concerns are that the efforts could start playing out at a local election level. Imagine local elections where voter registration banks were tampered with, election results were changed, where on voter registration day, times of signing up or places where you could sign up was all of a sudden changed.
There are lots of ways to sort of trip up our process of democracy, and it all starts at the grassroots level, with getting people registered to vote [and] informed about the candidates. And these are all areas of real vulnerability for us.
Benjamin Wood: As you mentioned several times, we’re heading toward the next presidential election, that brings with it a lot of questions about security, about some of these topics. It also brings up the question of our current Republican president running for reelection. Do you have any take on whether or not you would support his reelection or endorse, or do you have any thoughts on his presidency yet to date?
Jon Huntsman: Well, he’s kept us out of war, where many upon his election or even in the run up to his election said that he would bring catastrophe after catastrophe on the world stage. I see a lot of disorder, but disorder is always a part of our global engagement and the way in which the world is transitioning, particularly following the Jasmine revolutions of 2007, 2008.
And he’s kept the economy strong, which I think a lot of voters are going to look at. So I think those are the two big things that people are going to really evaluate his presidency on.
He’s blustery, he’s bombastic, he’s outspoken. He tweets in ways that make a lot of people uncomfortable, including me. But in the end, I think they’re going to say, are we at war? OK. He’s trying to clean up the Middle East from a 20 year ongoing series of wars. That’s a good thing.
And the economy is doing better than a lot of people thought, particularly as it relates to minority populations that are seeing higher rates of job creation and job growth than we have since the 1960s.
So I think these all play to the benefit of Trump in a reelection and he’ll have to get through whatever the process is by the House of Representatives based on the approach to impeachment. And that may or may not trip him up. Hard to know. But in the case of Bill Clinton, after his [impeachment] was overturned in the Senate, it only strengthened the hands of his own party. And Newt Gingrich, who was the speaker of the House of Representatives, will tell you that chapter and verse. So you have to approach the impeachment process during an election year, I think, very carefully.
Benjamin Wood: We’d like to pivot to more local issues but before we do, anything we haven’t talked about on the federal, national level of anything you care to follow up on before we transition?
Jon Huntsman: It’s a complicated and confusing world right now. The thing I walked away from most as I did from China, when I saw President Obama, is there’s still only one superpower in the world.
There are a couple of great powers and among them are China and Russia. But there’s only one superpower. And we are so dramatically ahead in terms of the areas that really matter in terms of national power, whether that is our economic performance, whether it’s our national defense, whether it’s our ability to create and sustain a self-sustaining civil society. I hope that lasts. That’s the most important thing that we have. And our soft power, which no other country even comes close to. Our ability to write the lyrics that everybody sings and reads around the world. Still, these are very prominent features of our national power. And I just don’t see another rival emerging on the world stage with the exception of China. And they’ve got their own challenges around the bend.
Bethany Rodgers: I guess the one follow up question that I would have before we transition is, what was your sense of the international sentiment toward the U.S. and toward President Trump? Did it change over the time that you were abroad?
Jon Huntsman: Well, I’ve seen the sentiment ebb and flow. I saw the sentiment when I worked for George W. Bush, who was widely reviled by Europe for his declarations of war in the Middle East. We were probably trading at an all time low in terms of our reputation and respect, mostly among our European partners and allies and friends who really should have stepped up and done more.
So I saw that as a low point. I see today still some concerns about the uncertainty surrounding U.S. policy. And in some areas, the president has hit Europe hard on things like living up to 2 percent of their GDP spent on national defense, which is really one of the goals of NATO membership among the 29 NATO countries.
I think that has created some some concern because there’s been lip service that’s been paid for decades now around that. And the president’s really tried to push some of the members on that. So there’s a little bit of backlash as far as that goes.
The trade war with China, I mean, where even to start on that. He’s taken on some issues that the past two or three presidents could have taken on, easily, but didn’t because of the political difficulty in calling the Chinese out on things like intellectual property theft and basic market access issues and indigenous innovation issues, picking winners, which they’re doing at the expense of U.S. competition within the marketplace.
So the world’s a complicated place and in the end, there is still enormous respect for the U.S. system, which transcends any one politician. And that’s our civil society, our values — that still really are sought after in a big part of the world, although you don’t hear about that a lot — and still our willingness to expend national resources to protect those who are being bullied abroad.
These things are still respected and the U.S. is still very much a leader in that regard.
Benjamin Wood: Let’s talk about Utah. We appreciate your time and we appreciate your willingness to chat with us on an embargoed basis. Listeners, just so you’re aware, we’re speaking on Monday and this episode likely will not be released for a few days. I can’t say for sure exactly when you’re hearing it.
There had been rumors swirling for the last several weeks about first, your return to the state in general and then, secondly, the potential for another run for governor.
There’s been this question out there among people who wonder why, who, for lack of a better phrase, think that Utah might be small potatoes for a man of your international and national reputation. And I think that’s kind of the first question we had, is why after after being ambassador, after running for president, after everything you’ve done, including being the governor of the state of Utah, why run again for governor?
Jon Huntsman: Well, first of all, this has always been our home. And so, of course, we’re going to return to where we have a home and have always been residents and will be for generations.
If you have a love for the state, as I do, as my family does, and if you want to see it survive the challenges of the future, and if there is an open seat in 2020, which there is, and if you feel that you helped to get the state in part to where it is today in areas around economic development, education, the environment and other areas, then you have to conclude — I have to conclude by saying we’re not done.
I think this state is just getting going. I really do. And if you have some ideas about where things could be improved and you’re not willing to put your voice forward, then I say, as someone who has been committed to public service a good part of my life, that I would be a lesser person for not wanting to stand up and do something about it.
Why governor? Because it’s the best job in the world. And I know that because I’ve done it. It’s a job that’s given to you by the people. And they put great faith and trust in you as governor. They afford you great leeway to do things. They want to know that you’re out looking out for the future, looking around the bend, anticipating risk and looking out for the next generation of Utahns, kids and grandkids. And you feel that when you’re governor.
It’s an awesome, awesome place to be. And in the public service experiences I’ve had — and again, they’ve been international and they’ve been here domestically — there hasn’t been an honor as great as serving the people of Utah.
Benjamin Wood: Well, you touched on a lot of topics there, some that we do want to return back to. But just to kind of set this up, we’d like to cover a wide range of things and we’ll be going back and forth a little bit. I’ll essentially get out of Bethany’s way for a minute and we’ll just see what we can cover in the time that we have.
Bethany Rodgers: To follow up on what you just said. I’m wondering if you feel like you have, I guess, the pulse of Utah having been away for a bit. Do you feel like you have your arms around what’s going on in the state at this point?
Jon Huntsman: You never leave. You read every day. You stay in contact? You return. But if you’re as invested as we were as governor before [we were] called off to go to China, you never leave those issues, they stay with you.
And maybe not too surprising. The issues are still with us today. I look at the headline issues and a lot of them are still based upon the issues that we focused on and tried to find solutions for and in some cases found some pretty good solutions and maybe a bit of updating is required. But no, you never lose your connectivity with the great state of Utah.
Benjamin Wood: Do you intend to gather signatures under SB54?
Jon Huntsman: Yes, we do.
Benjamin Wood: And what do you make of that whole discussion? It’s been a lingering debate for several years. What do you make of the transition and the new way that we’re nominating people for their party primary?
Jon Huntsman: Well, it’s run its course. It’s gone through the court system. It’s been debated for some time. I think you still need to pay respects to those who participate at the caucus levels, who turn out and run for state delegate.
I’ve been to countless of those cottage meetings where people run to be a state delegate and then they gather at the state convention. I think that’s still an important part of the process. And we would fully intend as a candidate to be part of that process, to visit as many delegates as we can. Just like we did last time. I’ve been through it twice.
The signature gathering is something that obviously is new. And I think all candidates are going to do that. It would probably be malpractice from an insurance standpoint not to do that. But that isn’t saying that you give short shrift to delegates and people who work the grassroots level. That’s the heart and soul of either one of the parties.
Bethany Rodgers: I wanted to ask you about the ongoing tax reform effort and the state considering a lot of options for rebalancing revenue streams. One of the things that’s currently on the table, as you know, is taxing food at the full sales tax level. Knowing that you tried to bring down the sales tax on food, what is your perspective of this effort and in particular, the food tax?
Jon Huntsman: Well, we not only tried to take it down, we did. And I think that was a very good thing. And there’s an economic argument. But there’s also a moral argument to be made that I think compels me and that compelled a lot of legislators at the time.
We took an old, more antiquated, system, which was a more progressive taxation system that had six tiers to it and probably a high rate of 7 percent. But when fully loaded, probably closer to 10. And I was compelled to move toward a flatter tax for purposes of competitiveness.
So as I went around, you know, doing the diligence before I ran in ’04 and then after I was elected, talking to people, what is most important for the state in terms of maintaining our competitiveness, given the levers that you really control. And the things that took us in that direction were, for example, the outflow of brainpower.
Why do we raise and educate kids here, the best and brightest, and they go somewhere else to make their dreams come true? That, to me, was not right. And we needed more of an environment that kept people here, which is to say more opportunity. Well, more opportunity usually comes in the form of more jobs and economic pursuits. In order to get that, you had to bring in more investment. In order to get more investment, you had to have a more attractive environment.
So for me, the 10-point plan that we created in ’04 was exactly to address our competitive needs. Because if we did that right, then education would benefit, transportation would benefit and families would benefit because people would have more choices to stay here as opposed to fleeing to Maricopa County or Clark County or Denver, which a lot we’re doing.
And it’s like, OK, so we raise them, we pay for their education, they say goodbye to their families. That’s just not right. We need to keep them here.
So we did in the old tax system, this was ’06 and ’07, started with a special session and then went beyond. And it was our first flat tax of its kind in the country. And people at the beginning said, ‘no way you get it done.’ And we said, ‘well, with the right kind of coalition, we can get it done.’ And we did.
And as part of that overall effort, we took the rate down to just slightly below 5 percent and did a little bit of work on the sales tax, particularly the sales tax coming off of food, which I thought was a really important thing to do. And I still believe that it’s an important thing to do.
It means a lot to families who in many cases can barely get by. And there’s nothing more basic than food for families. So I think that’s something that needs to stay where it is going forward. And I do believe that we have a tax structure that when you stack it up to other states is probably in the top 10, 15 states in terms of best practices. Sales tax, no, I think that’s one area where we lack and that’s going to need some work.
Income tax, it’s a best practices state. Business tax, it’s best practices. Property tax, it’s OK. And I’m referring to Tax Foundation analysis of all the 50 states. Sales tax is going to need, I think, a little bit of work. And therein lies the challenge.
So how do you broaden a base that used to be a whole lot more, consumer driven, consumer purchases of goods, and now it’s more and more services, maybe, I don’t know, 65 percent where it was maybe 50 percent in earlier years. How do you deal with that diminution of revenue? How do you make up for it in a way that is fair, by broadening the base? Any tax policy wants to begin by broadening a base and then applying a rate to that base. It’s hard to rely on a base that continues to shrink. And you have to say, why is it shrinking and what can be done in order to broaden that base and to make sure that all the bills are paid for.
So that takes us to a tax reform today. And I’m not quite sure where it’s going, but something will have to be done as it relates to the sales tax generally. But it has to be done in a way that really takes into account small businesses, which are the majority of job creators in the state. Some of them who can ill afford more bureaucratic efforts and higher costs.
So I would love it if we could still move toward a postage stamp [tax return]. You know just an envelope, if you will, size tax return. I think that still should be our goal. And it was our goal back when we started tax reform, which was the last time taxes really were tackled in the state.
There’s still some updating and maintaining that we can do in this drive for an ever more competitive state, because if we sleep on all those around us in our neighborhood, you better believe they’re sharpening their knives and trying to figure out how they can steal jobs from us and investment and become better at the economic development game.
Benjamin Wood: What do you make then of the proposal to amend the Constitution and do away with the income tax earmark so that can be spent on things that aren’t public education?
Jon Huntsman: I don’t have a position on that right now. I think first and foremost, as we look at the budget as I used to look at the budget, it was usually what do we do about public ed? That’s always thought No. 1. Now it’s a big percentage of our $18, $19 billion budget.
I think it’s probably time that we look more creatively at how we fund education. I think coming from the [Education] fund, as it has been, as earmarked by the Constitution, is important. But are there things additive that we can do for public education that we haven’t thought of before?
I’m not against looking for new revenue streams that will bring additional support to education. But when we talk about support for education, the [weighted pupil unit] that drives funding for students is one thing. Compensation for teachers is another that really is of interest to me.
I don’t know if you were reporting back in the days when we tried to get the highest level of compensation to teachers as part of our overall tax reform package earlier on. And we did that for a reason. I believe that we ought to get the best and the brightest in education. And part of it is when somebody is born to be an educator, as my grandfather was, no place will make them happy outside the classroom. I mean, they’re just born to do that. So that’s one part of it.
People want to be educators and we’re grateful for that. But there is a compensation part of it, too. They ought to be compensated fairly and we ought to have the compensation such that it does attract people who might drift off into some other line of work because we need the best and the brightest in the classroom for the next generation of Utahns.
Bethany Rodgers: Another piece of the tax reform discussion has been about transportation funding, about how the gas tax isn’t fully keeping up with the needs for infrastructure in the state. The task force right now is thinking about applying that sales tax to gas purchases. They’ve also discussed some sort of vehicle miles traveled initiative. And they’ve talked about the feasibility of toll roads.
All of those things have been kind of ideas floating out there. Do you have a position at this point on anywhere else to go for transportation funding?
Jon Huntsman: Same stuff that we’ve been talking about for a long time. Same thing. Just like on education. You know, a lot of this doesn’t change.
One thing I do know, if we get behind on transportation in terms of growth, we’re never going to catch up. You become a Maricopa County. You remember when Phoenix built their rail system, their light rail system when they had reached, I don’t know, maybe 5 million in size. They had just overtaken Philadelphia as the fifth largest city in the country. And the disruption and cost associated with doing something late in the game as opposed to ahead of time was hurtful, I think, to their overall economy and mobility.
So transportation is something that we have to stay on the cutting edge of. We can never fall behind the growth curve as it relates to transportation, which means all options have to be on the table. I’m not wedded to upping the gas tax. I don’t think that I’m ready to say anything on that front yet.
But I do think we need to look at all options for getting people around. And that includes walking, running, bikes, scooters, all forms of transportation. It includes ride-sharing that some cities and urban areas are looking at. So there are a lot of things that we can do that we ought to be looking at. But first and foremost, we can’t fall behind the growth curve as it relates to transportation.
Benjamin Wood: Should Utah host another Olympics?
Jon Huntsman: I think it’s worth considering. I wasn’t a huge proponent of the last one, just with concerns about what it might do to the canyons, from an environmental degradation standpoint. I was also a little concerned about creating jobs that were really temporary.
I was hard pressed to find any location that had hosted the Winter Olympics that actually benefited from a job creation standpoint. The jobs come and then they go, so how do you make it a sustainable effort? Moreover, most places outside of the United States and even some in the United States are able to pay for their Olympic costs and expenditures through government coffers, through travel and tourism budgets, stuff like that. We don’t do that.
So I think we have to be mindful of the budget, the economics, the environmental degradation and what you do with the infrastructure once it’s up and running.
I remember shortly after my election, I got the balance sheet on the infrastructure that we had built in ’02 and those were just a couple of years later. You get a luge run and, you know, slalom stuff and the giant ski jump facility. We have to maintain that, it has got to be maintained. Well, it costs money and you don’t have a whole lot of users for that.
So then you have to make a business model out of what you have. You bring in the professional sports organizations, you weave it into a travel tourism kind of design. So those are just right off the top of my head, you know, some concerns. Now, the positives are huge. And that is there are a few things in the world like the 14 or 15 day platform that you get in terms of projecting your community, your state, your culture to the rest of the world.
It’s a big deal. And I think we’ve benefited from that when we had the Olympics last time. So I think it’s an important conversation for people to have. And I would be neutral to positive about having it again.
Bethany Rodgers: Do you believe that human activity is a significant factor in a changing climate?
Jon Huntsman: I do believe that we are having an effect on the climate patterns, human activity in all of its forms and I think that’s been established by science. The question then becomes, well, what do you do about it and how can you address things like air quality and issues that become as much health related as they are pertinent to the environment?
And that’s where I think we find ourselves now in the Wasatch Front. I was down meeting with some entrepreneurs just recently in Lehi, a lot of the tech entrepreneurs. That’s an issue for them now in Utah Valley. So when they bring people to try to recruit talent, there are some months during the year that you just don’t want to do that. So that becomes an issue that we have to really think carefully about. It’s a health issue. It’s an environmental issue. And we have to be mindful, always, that we’re downstream, always downstream.
So we can do so much and then stuff blows our way, even from the factories of China and India. It gets in the jetstream. I’m talking more about pollutants, particulate matter, PM 2.5 stuff as opposed to the climate concerns, that ends up on the doorstep of California and then ultimately into the Wasatch Front. So this is a global issue, truly.
Benjamin Wood: I want to ask you about Medicaid and marijuana. We had two initiatives where the voters approved a particular approach. The Legislature repealed those approaches, put in their own plans and then those legislative plans suffered some defeats. And we’ve landed somewhere in the middle on both topics.
I’m curious what you think of where Utah is now on Medicaid and marijuana, and your thoughts on the Legislature repealing something that’s been approved by a majority vote?
Jon Huntsman: On the Medicaid front, we have to figure out how to cover families that are caught in between. And that was something we tried very hard to do the last go around by getting affordable, accessible, portable insurance policies, which is really, in a sense, the heart of the matter, because that’s the heart of medical spending, which is a hugely costly undertaking.
So if you can’t get coverage, if you can’t get insurance coverage for basic and even critical care, you’re in a really bad place. I believe it starts with an affordable, accessible insurance policy, which we worked very hard to get and we had some success on, but we just don’t have enough of it today.
We need to do something desperately soon with the insurance companies to see why we’re not getting more affordable, accessible and portable insurance policies that can cover all segments of the population. So on one hand, it’s the federal government and, you know, it’s reimbursements on Medicaid and who qualifies at the relative levels of poverty, because each state will kind of approach it a little differently.
That discussion will continue and should. But I think the bigger issue is what are we doing to fix it at a local level in terms of basic costs for health care? And costs are skyrocketing double digit year over year. Pharmaceutical costs are a big part of that and insurance costs are a big part of that.
We can come up with solutions that address some of these areas for people who are falling through the cracks. And we have a big uninsured population, to be sure. Not as big as the nation does, but we have a big population and it’s mostly the young, immortal population, 18 to 35 or 40 years old. We’re never going to die. And even if we wanted insurance, there is nothing we can afford.
Well, that needs to be fixed. And I think we have a role to play at a local level, ultimately, in doing that.
Benjamin Wood: And marijuana?
Jon Huntsman: Well, I think there’s an argument to be made about medical marijuana. I think that the people of the state saw that, and that’s why it led to the initiative. And I think we’re probably just on the front end of the medicinal value of things that we maybe didn’t appreciate before, that for those who suffer, may have some benefits.
I don’t think we know a lot about it. But I think there is something here that is worth pursuing. Now, when you’re in pain and when you’re suffering you see the world a little differently. And I’m reflecting on a family member who went through a lot of pain and suffering recently. And he talked about medical marijuana and said, how could anyone stand up and oppose something that would help those who were suffering grievous pain and a diminished quality of life. And I tend to agree with that.
Benjamin Wood: And I do want to make sure I double up on that political question, too. So the repeal efforts by the Legislature, those are bills that land on the governor’s desk. Moving forward, we’ve already seen interest in various other initiatives, there’s one on a carbon tax that’s percolating at the moment. In the event that you find yourself in the governor’s mansion and the Legislature repeals a voter approved initiative, is that good politics? Is that appropriate?
Jon Huntsman: I don’t think it’s good public policy. I think this is where a governor should stand up between the Legislature and the people who have maybe chosen to go in a different direction and to, in a sense, reconcile some of the differences.
I think that’s what leadership is. And that’s what I think a governor should do in a situation like this. The people feel one way, the Legislature — closer to the issues and maybe to the nuances of how the sausage is made from a public policy standpoint — feel differently. Well, somebody’s got to stand in the breach and reconcile those differences. Otherwise, you know, you have an open wound, as we seem to have today.
Bethany Rodgers: I want to ask you about the issue of conversion therapy. There was a bill this last session to ban conversion therapy for underage children. And now after the failure of that bill, the governor directed an administrative process to develop rules to do the same thing.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has come out opposed to the current version of the rules as drafted and have requested either significant changes or that the issue be returned to the Legislature. Do you support the rule as written? And if not, why?
Jon Huntsman: I’ll have to read up on the rule itself, but I think conversion therapy largely has been proven to be junk science. And I think the scientific community, those who are close to issues pertaining to gender and sexuality would probably say that there is not a lot there that proves that there is efficacy in using that approach.
More than that, I think it’s harmed a lot of people for life. And I think this is something we should straight up put behind us.
Benjamin Wood: Should Utah’s state flag be redesigned?
Jon Huntsman: I kind of like the way it is. We have our state symbol, which is actually enshrined in the state’s constitution. It has our motto, which is Industry, which I love, on the beehive. And it’s in a lovely blue field. I think it’s a very attractive flag. Now, I’m not an expert at this kind of thing.
Benjamin Wood: Do you think you could pick it out of a lineup if it was far away?
Jon Huntsman: I could, absolutely, and I do all the time. In your places that’s flying all 50 states, I can pick it out in a second. I think it’s actually pretty good. I wouldn’t expend a whole lot of effort trying to redesign it.
Bethany Rodgers: We’ve also heard Sen. Dan McCay has plans to sponsor legislation that would basically ban all elective abortions in the state. Meanwhile, there’s also legislation in the courts right now over the abortion bill that was passed by the Legislature this last session. Would you support a measure of the sort that Senator McCay is talking about and what are your views about how abortion should be regulated here in the state?
Jon Huntsman: I don’t like abortion. I would prefer adoption. It is a law of the land and until such time as that is overturned, it remains the law of the land. With regard to the specifics of his legislation, I’ll have to delve into that at the appropriate time. But this has come up repeatedly over the years, the same kind of thing.
And although it’s taken flight in some states, at some point the courts are going to have to step in and probably reconcile some of the differences. And I suspect that’s where the issue is headed for the most part.
Benjamin Wood: But if I could follow up, do you think that Utah should be engaged in poking at that court precedent, as some of our lawmakers are suggesting?
Jon Huntsman: Well, whether I think it’s appropriate or not it will happen, and it will happen as far as the eye can see into the future, because this is a hot-button issue. It’s a life and death issue. It’s one that polarizes people, so it’s going to be of interest to the media, to special interest groups. And it’s going to be something people talk about because there’s passion on both sides.
So the courts are going to ultimately, probably weigh in, probably in the next round or so, as they have in the past. And I think that’s probably the route this continues to take until Roe v. Wade is overturned. And I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to see that happen.
Benjamin Wood: A large portion of Salt Lake City has been set aside for the development of an inland port. I’m curious what you make of that project in general and also the approach the Legislature took in claiming authority over that area.
Jon Huntsman: The inland port concept has been talked about at least since the 1970s, and it’s what to do with vacant land out just west of the airport. And it’s now some warehousing space, Amazon has a million square foot facility out there.
You’ve got rail lines that are predominantly used by Union Pacific that make it a very good access point for goods coming in and coming out. It’s also when you look at rail, a pretty clean form of transporting goods, probably the cleanest form of all.
So could you turn that area into a vibrant transport center, that would be a part warehousing, part services, part manufacturing? I think inevitably that’s what happens. If you didn’t want to do it there, maybe you do it in the Tooele Valley.
But we are situated geographically in such a prime position and we are growing so rapidly as an economy that we are a natural hub for goods coming and going, goods where value added is made, goods that will be manufactured here, goods that will be warehouse and stored here. And that’s going to give rise to all of the allied services, whether it’s financial, whether it’s accounting, legal, logistics. These are all going to be part of it as well.
I think it can be done in ways that take into account the concerns that some have expressed with respect to the environment — where you put it, how you build it, who is co-located with it, the forms of transportation that have access to it. All of this has to be part of a master plan, ultimately.
And I think it’s a down payment long term on where our economy goes. I think ultimately it happens. I’m not quite sure where the location might be. I have my own thoughts on that, but I think this will be part of our future.
As it relates to governance, when are you not going to see city and state governments going at each other over structuring the right and appropriate governance process for something like this? That will continue. With a new mayor, I think we’ll probably see this evolve a little differently, maybe with less volume, and we’ll have to see what happens at the state level as well.
But ultimately to make this work, state and city governments are going to have to work together on the governance side. And they’re going to have to anticipate all the issues that already are out there in the public domain and make sure that the public feels good about it.
Bethany Rodgers: So just as a follow up, did you say that you have in mind alternative locations for the inland port to what’s currently in place?
Jon Huntsman: Well, we have something that’s already currently in place. You know, when I look at the 50 to 100 year horizon here in the state, I say at some point, Tooele Valley is going to come into its own. It’s going to be a second Salt Lake Valley. And wherever the inland port is situated in right now, we already have a geographical location that has been partially built out. It’s going to attract a lot of business and it’ll become a vibrant part of our Wasatch Front.
And so whether there or whether we’re looking longer term at maybe sharing some of that with an adjacent county, because based on growth, every county around Salt Lake and Utah counties is feeling that pressure — whether it’s Juab County, whether it’s Summit County, whether it’s Tooele — everyone’s feeling that pressure that’s emanating from growth on the Wasatch Front.
And we ought to think long term about how this is situated and where we want our growth patterns to exist over the next 50 to 100 years. But this comes from my earlier involvement as chair of Envision Utah. When you’re forced to look at the developable land that we’ve got, which isn’t much, and how we best utilize it going forward.
When you add another million people, as we’re about to do over the next decade, how do you shoehorn them in while maintaining quality of life, clean air, water and educational access? All this stuff is really complicated when you start adding another million people. So I think it behooves us all to think long term about how we want this densely populated metropolitan area to evolve.
And now you’ve got Washington County that is growing in a similar fashion and they’ll have the same kinds of challenges.
Bethany Rodgers: On the current transition in homeless services from the closure of The Road Home to the three new resource centers, we’ve been seeing lately some concerns over available capacity in those three new resource centers. Do you approve of the way that the state is handling those capacity concerns at this point?
Jon Huntsman: I’m not going to criticize the state, far be it for me to do that. All I can say is we did our best to eradicate homelessness when I was governor before and we came pretty close to doing that. And we did it by making it as much a humanitarian effort as anything else, realizing that you were dealing with addiction, you were dealing with some mental illness issues, people who, through no fault of their own, had fallen through safety nets in society, and most of whom wanted to get back on their feet. And that required the dignity of housing.
And so in the end, I look less at how do we deal with the cold night tonight and tomorrow night, because we have facilities that can handle that. And we’ll debate that forever as to what should be open and closed. The bigger issue is how do we bring an end to this and how do we address the underlying root causes of homelessness?
It isn’t all based on economics. When we had earlier presidential administrations, people would always blame the bad economy for homelessness. That’s part of it, but the economy is good here. We’re fully employed. So you have to look beyond just the economic, beyond the economics of homelessness, at what some of the underlying drivers are and then sort of match some of those drivers with solutions.
And I really do believe that finding transitional opportunities for the homeless, finding ways in which we can address addiction and ultimately, long term, the mental health issues that underlie a lot of this, which we know so little about — I hope we know more in the years and the decades ahead — that’s where I think our focus really needs to be. It’s how we transition people toward dignity. Get them off the streets where it becomes more of a lawless environment, where you find more drugs and violence. That’s what we’ve experienced the last little while. We’ve got to get more people working toward a transitional plan that gets them back on their feet.
Benjamin Wood: Your last lieutenant governor was Gary Herbert, our current governor. Is there anyone that you have in mind for a potential running mate? And for voters who are perhaps a little worried that you might be invited to be an ambassador again or another position in the national, international community, do you expect to finish your term if elected?
Jon Huntsman: Well, that’s a perfectly legitimate point. And I would ask it too. No, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve done my service and I’m proud to have done my service to two parties and different presidents. But it was a really tough call. And we can maybe take another time when what do you want to discuss it, what goes through the thought process when a president asks you to do something and you’ve got a commitment of this kind. You’re serving a state. You’ve been reelected. There’s a lot underway, a lot happening. And you have to make a call.
I don’t regret any of that. But I’m here to tell you, I’m not going anywhere. I’m proud of our service. I’m proud of what I did here as governor. This is our future here.
And I’m not much into the national political scene. I’ve been there. I’ve tried it. It’s a lot of wasted time, a lot of theatrics and kicking up dust and not a lot of effort that goes into problem solving, which is what I like, and preparing communities for the future. We’re here and and we’re not going anywhere.
In terms of possible lieutenant governor choices, I was greatly benefited to have Gary as as a lieutenant governor. We were friends. I used to tease him that he could interpret my English in Utah County and I could interpret his English in the rest of the state. And we had a good, division of labor. We worked well together. And I think he’s done a fine job in the intervening years. Where we go on that decision, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Bethany Rodgers: That kind of segued into the last question that at least I have. How would you grade your former lieutenant governor as governor?
Jon Huntsman: I don’t give out grades. I think that’s unfair. I wouldn’t give out a grade on myself either. But I would say he’s been a very, very dedicated governor and one who I can proudly say has taken the best of what we tried to do and kept it going and added to it where he thought it was appropriate.
Benjamin Wood: Obviously, there’s a long time to go before the election, but as things currently stand, it does appear that you’re in a top tier with Spencer Cox as a potential opponent, which is somewhat interesting in that you are Gov. Herbert’s predecessor, Spencer Cox is his current lieutenant governor. Some might view that as a natural succession, or at least in the current administration’s mind.
So for voters who are looking at this race and they’re seeing a choice between you and Spencer Cox, both men who have orbited the same kind of sphere, what case do you make to them?
Jon Huntsman: Well, I think ultimately people are going to look at experience, because past performance in the job is generally an indication of where things are going to go into the future.
We were the first statewide official to win all 29 counties. And I think that was based on a lot of hard work and a collaborative environment that we created across the partisan divide, just working to do the right thing for the people of the state. And a lot of those same issues are still with us.
I think folks are going to say, who is best equipped to address those issues based upon where they’ve been? Who’s best positioned to address our place in the world, which is going to become more and more problematic, because we’re competing not just against Nevada and Arizona and Colorado and California, we’re competing against Singapore and Hong Kong and South Korea.
And I think they’re going to say, who is best prepared to deal in an increasingly tumultuous national environment, which I think I understand pretty well, too. And who’s best positioned to see around the bend, to anticipate the challenges and to come up with public policy solutions that will protect our kids and our grandkids.
We’ve gladly had the privilege of being in that seat before. And I think we’ve proven what we can do. And we’d be greatly honored and humbled to be able to do it again.
Benjamin Wood: As a last question, I want to make sure that we acknowledge this is a somewhat delicate interview in that your brother, Paul Huntsman, is the owner and publisher of The Salt Tribune.
Jon Huntsman: Yes.
Benjamin Wood: The Salt Lake Tribune has recently been approved for a nonprofit status, but we have not yet gone through that transition. I would just be curious to ask you what you perceive as your relationship with the Tribune.
Jon Huntsman: Same as it has always been. I got your endorsement two election cycles in a row. I would not accept an endorsement today.
Benjamin Wood: Luckily, we can’t even give them out anymore.
Jon Huntsman: You don’t give them out and I wouldn’t take it if you could. But I see it as no change at all. None.
Benjamin Wood: Well, former governor, Ambassador Jon Huntsman, thank you so much for being on “Trib Talk.”
Jon Huntsman: Ben, Bethany. It’s been a pleasure to be with you. Thanks for your time.