The three most important decisions in a politician’s life, says Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, are a spouse, a running mate and a chief of staff.
In Herbert’s case, those three people are Utah’s first lady, Jeanette Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Justin Harding, a southern Utah native with a relatively small public profile compared with his outsize influence and authority over state government.
“He is the supercop directing traffic,” Herbert says of Harding. “It’s a really challenging job, it’s not easy. But it is the most important staff member, obviously, that I have.”
One part strategist and adviser, one part spokesperson and one part substitute principal, Harding manages the governor’s executive office and staff, coordinates the Cabinet and stands as proxy for Herbert in formal government business.
The position is the highest unelected nonjudicial office in Utah and yet one in which success can often be measured by how well the individual in it disappears into the background.
Derek Miller, president of the Salt Lake Chamber and Harding’s predecessor, joked that his own siblings didn’t know he was the governor’s chief of staff. An unwritten, half-serious rule dictated that he owed the executive staff ice cream any time he landed in the news, even in the background of a photo.
“You’re not the star of the show,” Miller says. “But you’re helping to produce the show and making sure the show is running well.”
For Harding, being Herbert’s chief of staff is the latest assignment in a career working for Utah’s elected leaders, beginning with former Rep. Jim Hansen and continuing through the offices of Rep. Rob Bishop and former Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
And with Herbert slated to leave the governor’s office in early 2021, the position of chief of staff has a similar, approaching deadline. But whatever Harding’s plans, he prefers to play coy beyond remarking that he still has “gas in the tank” and no aspirations to elected office.
“The people who can do this job best are the ones who don’t see themselves being the natural successor to the governor,” Harding says. “I’ve never viewed myself in that role.”
Harding describes himself as a product of rural Utah. His father lived in Kanosh and his mother in Minersville, while his grandparents had roots in Heber City and Magna. He is the middle of five children — three boys, two girls.
At age 10, Harding’s father — a commercial pilot — was killed in a glider plane accident. During his high school years, Harding would spend the week with his grandparents in Minersville, attending Beaver High and working at his uncle’s floor-covering store, before returning home to his mother and siblings’ home on the weekends.
“He gave me my first real job and taught me, along with his dad, the value of hard work,” Harding says of his uncle. “His family also ensured that our family was folded into all of their family activities following my dad’s death.”
Between 1994 and 1996, Harding served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rochester, N.Y. On his return, he enrolled at Southern Utah University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and met his now-wife, Bridget Harding, in the summer of 1998.
That meeting did not go smoothly, according to Arizona native Bridget Harding, who compared their early courtship to the rocky start of “Pride and Prejudice.” She was aware of Justin Harding through SUU social circles but first interacted with him during a group hike at Kanarra Falls with mutual friends.
The man who would become her husband pulled up to the car she was riding in and greeted her by saying, “Hey, sexy.”
“Let’s just say it definitely wasn’t his first words that impressed me,” Bridget Harding says. “I’d never had a guy ever speak to me like that.”
Their second encounter was only marginally improved. Bridget Harding says he approached her and one of her friends and suggested that he visit her at her apartment that night so she could cook brownies for him.
“I just turned to him and I said, ‘No, I would never make you brownies,’” Bridget Harding recalls.
She says his response to that was to offer to instead make brownies for her. Later that night, he arrived and cooked what Bridget Harding described as not “your Betty Crocker from-the-box” variety. Later, as an anniversary present, he gave her a framed family brownie recipe, she says.
They were engaged shortly after Christmas 1998 and married the following summer. An internship with Hansen followed, moving the family to northern Virginia, where they lived for 15 years and where all of their six children were born.
Bridget Harding says their plan was to live on the East Coast for 20 years. But when the offer came to join Herbert’s staff, she says, the time felt right to return to Utah.
“I felt very blessed to have 15 of those 20 years,” she says.
Despite his inherent workload as Herbert’s chief of staff, she says much more of her husband’s time was consumed in D.C., where the commute was longer and ecclesiastical responsibilities as a Mormon bishop dug into their routine.
“I feel like I have much more time with him here in Utah than we did in D.C.,” she says.
When asked what initially interested him in politics and government, Justin Harding credits his wife with the inspiration. She was a political science major — while he originally studied business — and resistant to his ambition at the time of staying in southern Utah and working at the floor-covering store.
“She was a little underwhelmed, I think, to say the least,” Harding says.
Herbert has effusive praise for Harding’s personality, calling him “the consummate family man,” as well as smart, frank and kind. He also praises Harding as a man of faith, someone who is respectful of others' beliefs, including nonreligious people.
“I appreciate somebody who has a belief in something outside of our secular society,” says Herbert, also a member of the LDS Church. “I believe people become the best they can be with a faith in a supreme being.”
Before joining Herbert’s team, Harding worked as chief of staff to Chaffetz. While he had intended to stay in D.C. a little longer, he says in hindsight it’s apparent that his family had reached an inflection point.
The older Harding children were reaching their teenage years, Harding recalls, and professionally he had climbed near the top of unelected positions in the U.S. House. To stay in Washington, he says, would have meant working for a congressional committee or turning to lobbying.
“I wasn’t quite sure that I wanted to be a hired gun,” Harding says.
That was when a phone call came “out of the blue” from Miller, Herbert’s then-chief of staff. Miller was leaving to head up World Trade Center Utah and envisioned Harding as his replacement.
Miller and Harding had contemporaneously worked in D.C. and lived in the same area of Virginia (and were members of the same Mormon stake). The working relationship between Herbert’s and Chaffetz’s offices had kept them in touch after Miller moved to Utah.
“Whenever he was back in Utah, we would find an opportunity to get together,” Miller says.
Chaffetz says there were no hard feelings when Harding left to join Herbert’s team. They had worked together for several years, and Chaffetz says he was grateful for what was accomplished in that time.
“He’s the perfect chief of staff,” Chaffetz says. “Everybody likes him.”
Chaffetz says there is little by way of embarrassing stories or amusing anecdotes to share of his former right-hand man. Harding, he says, is just as steady as he goes.
“I wish there was some weird, funny story to tell you,” Chaffetz apologizes. “He’s just not like that. He’s not prone to doing something stupid that would be fun to poke him about.”
Harding says his time with members of Utah’s federal delegation was among his most meaningful and memorable work. His time with Hansen, Bishop and Chaffetz coincided with votes on natural resources and transportation that included securing funding for Utah’s FrontRunner and TRAX lines and a runway extension at the Ogden-Hinckley Airport. (He had left Chaffetz’s office before the congressman was named chairman of the House Oversight Committee, from which perch he gleefully tormented Hillary Clinton and other Democrats.)
While some deride as pork-barrel politics the types of projects Harding describes, he says those appropriations played a valuable function and the disdain for dreaded earmarks has helped the legislative process grind to a halt.
“There was an incentive for members to actually get in and to work and to support critical votes,” he says.
While much of Harding’s day-to-day in state government involves managerial tasks, Herbert says he plays a critical role in policy strategy and counsel. There’s an impulse for politicians to think in the short term, Herbert says. It’s harder — and a valuable skill of a chief of staff — to see beyond the next election cycle.
“He has a good sense and a good grasp for the politics,” Herbert says of Harding. “But he has even a better grasp for what is good policy.”
Harding, Herbert adds, has both know-how and “do-how.”
“You can know everything but do nothing,” Herbert says. “He knows a lot and is doing even more.”
Herbert has stated that he will not seek re-election in 2020, meaning a new governor — and new chief of staff — will take the reins in 2021. And after four years, Harding has held the position for the longest of Herbert’s three chiefs of staff.
“I tell people that the governor likes well-worn shoes,” Harding says. “He likes things that are familiar to him."
While he is not sure — or at least not saying — what his next move will be, Harding says he’s likely to stay on until Herbert’s term ends. They’ve grown close personally and professionally, he says, and there comes a point when it would be difficult to leave.
“In some respects, it might be unfair of me, unfair to him with a year left, to throw a new chief of staff into the mix.”
Miller says the chief of staff job is unique in that even if you’re doing it right, you won’t be doing it for long. You know on your first day, he says, that you’re not going to be around forever.
“It’s a job that has a short shelf life,” he says.
Bridget Harding says the couple recently purchased a house and that she is not eager to relocate. She says she welcomes change, but suggested that Utah and the Hardings' current home — which she described as “our personal St. Regis in Sandy" — will be constant for the near future.
Asked what he envisions for the future of his chief of staff, Herbert says he expects many doors to open for him.
“He’s got a lot of talent,” Herbert says. “That coupled with a lot of experience means you’re going to have a lot of opportunities. You’re going to be in demand.”