State senator who backs Spencer Cox questions Huntsman’s Utah residency

(Ivy Ceballo | Deseret News, pool) Former Gov. Jon Huntsman addresses reporters following the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate at the PBS Utah studio at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 1, 2020.

Over the past decade, gubernatorial contender Jon Huntsman has bounced from an ambassadorship in China to a D.C. think tank to a diplomatic posting in Russia.

Now, one of Huntsman’s most vocal critics is questioning if, somewhere in this shuffle, the candidate lost his Utah residency — a constitutional imperative for anyone planning on serving as the state’s governor.

“I think it is important for those questions to be asked of a candidate,” said state Sen. Todd Weiler, a supporter of Huntsman’s opponent, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

Upon entering the race, Huntsman signed a document attesting that he meets all the constitutional qualifications to serve as governor, such as having been a state resident for least five years before the election. State voting records bolster that assertion, showing that Huntsman cast ballots in Utah elections in 2019, 2018, 2016 and 2014.

And his campaign objected to a lengthy Twitter thread that Weiler recently posted, calling into question Huntsman’s resident status.

“Through years of service in this state and abroad, Utah has always been home for Governor Huntsman,” the Huntsman campaign said in a statement. “Spencer Cox’s number 1 surrogate, Senator Weiler’s endless Twitter harassment of the Huntsman family is just more dirty politics.”

Justin Lee, the state’s elections director, called residency “a notoriously kind of sticky definitional issue” that largely hinges on whether a person intends to return to Utah. Determining someone’s intent is challenging, he said, but officials have looked at where a person pays taxes, where the individual’s children attend school and where the person votes.

Someone can’t lose residency for being “employed in the service of the United States,” Lee added, meaning that a congressional representative or other federal official can live in D.C. but remain a citizen of Utah. Because of that exemption, Weiler concedes, Huntsman would’ve kept his Utah resident status during his time as ambassador to Russia and China.

But Weiler, R-Woods Cross, wonders about the period in between those two diplomatic postings, when Huntsman ran for president and worked at a think tank in Washington, D.C.

“When I listen to him speak, he kind of glosses over those six years from 2011 to 2017,” he said.

After leaving China, Huntsman made a short-lived run for president and then took on a role leading the Atlantic Council, a prominent foreign policy think tank. The Huntsman family owned a home in a D.C. neighborhood for part of this period and in 2014 relocated to a home in a Virginia suburb.

Despite residing in the D.C. area, the Huntsmans still owned property in Utah — a condo in City Creek Center, according to an article in The Salt Lake Tribune.

In 2017, President Donald Trump named Huntsman as the U.S. ambassador to Russia, an assignment that sent the diplomat and his wife to Moscow. They returned in 2019, shortly before Huntsman announced his bid for Utah governor, and property records show the couple now owns a home in the foothills overlooking Salt Lake City.

While residency is difficult to define under Utah law, Lee said, looking at a person’s voting history can give a strong indication.

“If you register somewhere else and vote in that state, that’s pretty clear that you’ve not for election purposes lost your residency in another state,” he said.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said elections officials typically get a notification when a Utah voter attempts to register in another state. Her records show no indication that Huntsman has tried to register outside of Utah.

Lee said his office looks into residency questions if it receives a complaint but added that the window for challenging someone’s status is open for only five days after he or she declares as a candidate. No one submitted a complaint about Huntsman during that five-day period, he said.

Weiler argues the issue is relevant even after the close of the formal challenge period, pointing out that the constitutional eligibility language doesn’t have any expiration.

Meanwhile, Huntsman’s team said it wants to focus on the issues rather than being distracted by attacks.

“You’d think in times of a global pandemic, and 10% unemployment, a state senator would do the same,” the statement read.

When asked about the residency issue, the Cox campaign noted that the lieutenant governor has recused himself from any election controversies impacting the gubernatorial race.

“Any complaints of this nature would be forwarded to former Lt. Gov. Gayle McKeachnie,” said campaign spokeswoman Heather Barney. As for Weiler, she said, he is “just one among thousands of top supporters" of the Cox campaign.

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.

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