Robert Gehrke: Gary Herbert and the case for competence

Utah’s second-longest-serving governor is about to call it quits. Here are his strengths and weaknesses.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert waves after speaking before the Utah Legislature during his annual State of the State speech on Jan. 24, 2018, in Salt Lake City. Herbert is looking back on his 11-year tenure as his time as governor comes to an end.

Gov. Gary Herbert recognizes there was a good deal of serendipity in his “improbable journey” in politics.

After leaving Brigham Young University and starting a real estate firm, Herbert spent 14 years as a Utah County commissioner.

It was back in 2004, after Herbert spent six months trying and mostly failing to get traction in a crowded gubernatorial field, that he agreed to a political marriage that ultimately would work out tremendously well for him.

Herbert spent 4 1/2 years as former Gov. Jon Huntsman’s No. 2 before Huntsman was tapped to become the U.S. ambassador to China and Herbert ascended to the top spot, a position he has held for 11 1/2 years — second only to Cal Rampton as the longest-serving governor in the state’s history.

His tenure was bookended by the two most cataclysmic economic collapses in generations — the financial crash of 2008 and the coronavirus collapse this year.

Between them, however, Herbert left a mark on the state in a distinctly Gary Herbert way.

He has never been a flashy politician. He’s not polished like Huntsman or blessed with a silver tongue. He fell back on down-home colloquialisms and often mangled those (for years he repeatedly said “part and partial” when he meant “part and parcel.”)

Nor was he, it’s safe to say, a big-idea guy like former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who during my years covering his administration seemed to trot out a new grand vision with slick branding every quarter.

He was just Gary.

(Tribune file photo) Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke interviews Gov. Gary Herbert in December 2015 during then-vice presidential candidate Mike Pence's visit to Utah.

When he was reelected for the last time four years ago, I challenged Herbert to flex a little, and use the “monster truck” of a political mandate to think big and get things done. Instead, he set the cruise control right at the speed limit and kept it steady.

“From Day One in office Gov. Herbert made the claim that he would make every decision through the lens of the economy,” Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem Gardner Policy Center told me. “There are lots of ways to measure an economic expansion, but for the most common measure, he oversaw the longest sustained expansion in Utah’s economic history.”

Utah’s economic run wasn’t just long, it was brisk. Since 2010, Utah’s gross domestic product grew faster than any of the neighboring states and well above the national average. The state economy generated more than 323,000 jobs during his tenure.

That translated into robust investments in public education in recent years and frequently landed Utah on various publications’ lists of best states economically and best places to live.

His administration had a hand in the creation of the Silicon Slopes initiative, World Trade Center Utah, the prison relocation and development of the inland port. He shepherded through criminal justice reform and he left a lasting legacy in Utah courts, appointing 108 state judges.

While riding that economic wave, he was seemingly guileless. For so many governors, having a term or two under their belt had them thinking about their next step — the U.S. Senate or maybe even president. But we never got that to any significant extent from Herbert and it seems to have kept him grounded in a way, focused on the task at hand.

That’s not to say he was apolitical. He was a voracious fundraiser, which got him in trouble more than once. There was the massive $1.7 billion contract to rebuild Interstate 15 that went to a prominent supporter and cost the state $13 million to settle a lawsuit with the losing bidder, and his infamous meeting with lobbyists where he labeled himself “Available Jones” because he’s available to meet with donors anytime, anywhere.

Over the years, I also saw something else rare in politics: His views evolved — too slowly, in some instances, but he moved in the right direction.

When he took office, he cast doubt on climate change, but by 2018 had signed a resolution recognizing the Earth was warming and calling for greenhouse gas reductions. Early in his tenure, he opposed Salt Lake City’s LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinance, but signed a similar statewide bill into law in 2015. He charted a moderate course on immigration.

In his first State of the State address, Herbert railed against Obamacare and in his second vowed to fight the “unconstitutional federal health care program,” but within a few years had devised “Healthy Utah,” his own version of Medicaid expansion, and tussled with the Legislature until voters passed a very similar version in 2018.

“I am conservative in principles and I tend to be moderate in tone and inclusive in process,” Herbert (who used his veto pen more than 30 times during his tenure) said frequently over the years.

Certainly there were areas where he could have been bolder. But we could have done worse. This is Utah, after all, and there were plenty in his party and in the Legislature who thought he was too liberal.

The state’s pandemic response showed the deficiencies of trying to balance Herbert’s small-government inclinations (along with intense pressure from anti-lockdown legislators) against the need for a more decisive pandemic response. What we got was a response that leaned too heavily on unproven private-sector resources, conveyed a muddled message and in the fall was delayed until hospitals were teetering on the breaking point.

Now, the pandemic recovery will fall to incoming Gov. Spencer Cox, one of a handful of challenges he will face — growth-related pressures like housing prices, congestion and air quality; trying to make sure economic growth lifts minority and rural residents; and continuing to bolster education.

Fortunately, he inherits a state that is fundamentally sound, thanks to Herbert. And if his aim is for consistent, competent and steady leadership, he’s learned from a pretty good teacher.