When Utah Gov. Gary Herbert took office in 2009, the state was in the throes of the Great Recession, a period marked by such economic uncertainty and hardship that he said at the time it was “one of the most challenging” stretches in the state’s history.
Now, after more than a decade and three elections later, the governor is preparing to leave office amid a different crisis: a global pandemic that’s killed more than 1,200 Utahns, sickened upward of 260,000 and rattled the economy he spent the past 11 years building back up.
“It’s been the hardest year of my elected career, which spans over 30 years,” Herbert said of 2020 in a recent interview from the governor’s mansion with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Managing the economic fallout from the 2008 stock market crash was difficult, to be sure, he said. “But this pandemic permeates every aspect of our society,” Herbert added. “It impacts everything; that’s 24/7. It’s invisible. We don’t know who’s got it and who’s going to give it to the next person. So it’s been a real challenge.”
Sandwiched between the two crises was Herbert’s 11.5-year tenure, a time frame marked in the Beehive State by rapid economic and population growth and dizzying social change.
Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said Herbert was a governor who, through it all, was focused more on managing the government than on unveiling splashy new initiatives.
“He’s not going to be remembered as somebody who fundamentally transformed the nature of government or the nature of the economy,” he said. “But I think people will look at him and say he did a good job as governor.”
Herbert first gave a hint of that leadership style when he took the state’s helm in 2009 — replacing former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who left office early after he was tapped to serve as U.S. ambassador to China in President Barack Obama’s administration — and said Utahns should expect things to remain largely the same.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any dramatic change ... it’s a matter of keeping the ship steadily in the right direction,” he told The Tribune as he prepared to take office. “I’ll be keeping a steady hand on the tiller.”
Herbert’s lieutenant governor, Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, says now that his predecessor’s legacy is characterized by exactly that — a “steady hand.”
“He’s never too high, he’s never too low,” Cox said in an interview. “Along with that is — and I would include in that steady hand of leadership — it’s a legacy of collaboration. He is somebody who has been the model of bringing people together who disagree and trying to find common ground, something I admire him just so much for. There’s just nobody like him in the country that does that.”
That doesn’t mean Herbert hasn’t had his share of controversy, though.
He’s been criticized at times throughout the year for the way he’s led the state’s response to the coronavirus, including from Republicans who thought he was overstepping his power and Democrats and others who questioned no-bid contracts and wanted him to do more to stem the spread of the virus.
He also came under fire in 2016, when an audio recording surfaced of a private meeting with his campaign staff, lobbyists and supporters in which he referred to himself as “Available Jones” when it came to meeting with donors — a phrase some saw as a demonstration of his willingness to trade access for big checks.
Another campaign contribution dispute swirled in 2010, when it emerged the state had quietly paid $13 million to a highway construction company that said irregularities in the state bidding process had cost it a $1 billion Interstate 15 contract that instead went to a group led by Herbert donors.
Herbert, who is the nation’s longest-serving governor and the state’s second-longest-serving governor, concedes his time in office wasn’t “perfect.” But he argues that, on the whole, the state is better off because of his leadership.
“In virtually every measurable way, the things that states face as a challenge and Utah has faced uniquely so we’ve made improvements in a significant way,” he said. “If we’re not the best in the nation, we’re in the top five in about every measurable way. So I just hope people recognize that we’ve worked really hard and had great results.”
Economic development & education
Herbert says he doesn’t really think “in terms of legacy.” But when asked to point to his biggest accomplishments during his time in office, he names two things: the economy and education.
After four years as lieutenant governor following his 14 years on the Utah County Commission, the longtime real estate agent says he came into office with a plan to shepherd the state out of the recession that was rooted in his belief that elected officials should view the economy “as their primary focus.”
“If you have a healthy economy, it helps you pay the bills for whatever the issues are of the day,” he said. “Education, you get more money. Infrastructure to build more roads, more money. Building buildings on our university campuses, more money. The healthy, growing economy produces more revenue without having to overtax the people that produce it.”
Cited as evidence of his approach: In 2011, Herbert called for the creation of 100,000 jobs in 1,000 days and had by 2014 exceeded that goal with the creation of 112,200 new jobs. When he took office, unemployment was nearing double digits. By the end of last year, it had dropped to a record 2.4% — though it has since ballooned to 4.3% amid the coronavirus pandemic.
While the coronavirus has dimmed some of the economic successes of the past few years, Herbert notes that Utah is one of the states best positioned to emerge strong from the pandemic and said he feels confident he’s leaving the state in a good place.
“At the end of the day today, as we’re now moving into the turnaround period of 2021 with a vaccine now coming in to help us out, we’re in pretty good shape in comparison to virtually every other state,” he said, “not only in health care but on the economics of it, too.”
Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and a former chief of staff to Herbert, said the economic outcomes of the past few years are a direct result of the governor’s “laserlike” focus on the economy.
“I heard him say more times than I can count, ‘Every decision I make is going to be through the lens of, is it going to help the economy or is it going to hurt the economy?’” Miller recounted. “I perceive that he has the recognition that when you’re talking about the economy and when you talk about job creation, what you’re really talking about is people and the opportunity that people have to take care of themselves and their loved ones when they have a job.”
In addition to his work on the economy, Herbert says he’s also proud of the investments the state has made in education under his leadership, noting that when he took office it was viewed as “kind of a Democrat issue.”
“I approached it a little differently as a Republican, coupled it with our need to have economic growth. I said, ‘We cannot have economic growth as good as it’s possible to be if we don’t have an educated labor force.’”
Today, Utah’s high school graduation rate is sitting at 88.2% — an increase of nearly 10 percentage points from when Herbert took office. And Herbert notes the state’s investment of additional dollars in new ongoing funding into public education (though Utah is still dead last in per-pupil spending across the nation).
But while the state may not spend the most on education, the governor argues that it gets much better results than those that do.
“It’s not just those who spend the most money,” he said. “It’s also those who make sure the system works, parents are involved, teachers are included in the discussion so that we work together in a cohesive way to improve educational outcomes.”
Responding to a global pandemic
While Herbert has received praise from leaders of all political stripes for his approach to the economy, his response to the coronavirus has received less-than-glowing appraisals.
Educators have tangled with the governor over school openings. Legislative Republicans have expressed opposition to his executive orders, arguing that he was overstepping his constitutional bounds. And elected Democrats and more than a few physicians and health experts contend he hasn’t done enough to stem the spread of the coronavirus and have called for increased restrictions and regulations.
The governor has also had to answer questions about the millions of taxpayer dollars that were directed toward no-bid contracts in the early days of the pandemic and the state’s purchase early on of unproven malaria drugs for COVID-19 patients, a buy Herbert ended up canceling.
A September poll showed fewer than half of Utahns were happy with Herbert’s handling of the coronavirus — and that was before the fall surge in cases and deaths that extended into his last month in office.
Burbank said that, “at least in the short term,” the government’s pandemic response is likely to affect the way Utahns view the governor after he leaves office.
“It certainly had an impact because it was a big event and it was an event that, again, I don’t think he handled badly,” he said. “But like most political leaders, he really didn’t have great options in terms of how best to handle it.”
Herbert says “hindsight is always a lot better view than the moment” and acknowledges that the state’s response to the coronavirus wasn’t perfect. But he said he and those by his side did the best they could with the information they had.
The state was proactive early on in obtaining personal protective equipment during a nationwide shortage and it emerged with a stockpile he says helped Utah “have a better start to combating the pandemic than many other states.”
He also believes state leaders have struck the right balance between protecting public health and the economy during the crisis. The state’s death toll per capita is much lower than in South Dakota, where leaders haven’t closed anything, and it’s also below the death rate in California and New York, both of which have had several economic shutdowns, Herbert notes.
“On balance, we’ve done a pretty good job of protecting people’s health care, their health, as well as their livelihoods and the economy,” he said. “Has it been perfect? No. But I will submit to you nobody, and I mean nobody, has the magic formula. Probably all 50 states have approached this differently and all 50 states have different results.”
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he appreciates Herbert’s willingness to listen to science and public health leaders throughout the pandemic. But he said the governor was “too quick to not treat this as the public health emergency that it is” and faults him for “rolling over” for anti-maskers and not implementing stricter coronavirus restrictions.
There are states that are similar to Utah in terms of population, King noted, that have lower rates of infection or deaths per capita than Utah does.
“Why? Because their officials have been quicker to, I think, act responsibly and in a necessary way from a public health perspective, putting in place restrictions that were necessary and appropriate,” he said. “In that sense, I have heartburn about Gov. Herbert not going far enough to ensure Utahns are kept safe.”
‘We’re in a good place’
As he prepares to leave the governor’s mansion early next month, Herbert said he hasn’t shared much in the way of advice with Cox, who will take over after an inauguration ceremony Jan. 4.
That’s because Herbert, pointing to Cox’s experience across multiple levels of government, said the lieutenant governor is already “ready to hit the ground running.”
“He doesn’t need a primer on how to do this,” the governor said. “He’s been doing it for most of his adult career in some elected office or another.”
Herbert said Cox has his own political personality and will likely put emphasis on different policy areas, bringing his “youthful enthusiasm” and “a new set of eyes and ears” to the job. But — in much the same way he once promised Utahns that the Herbert administration would follow in Huntsman’s footsteps — Herbert doesn’t believe the Cox administration will reflect a marked change.
“I have no reason to doubt that they won’t just stay the course,” he said. “There’s not a lot of adjustments that need to be made. We’re in a good place as a state. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The outgoing governor, now 73, doesn’t plan to slow down, either. He’s been invited to set up an institute of public policy bearing his name at Orem’s Utah Valley University, where he used to teach, and wonders if there’s an opportunity to spend more time in the classroom now that he’s left public service.
The message he wants to share there is rooted in the dangers of socialism and the value of a free market, capitalist system.
“We’re kind of at a point in history where people are almost reluctant to say the word ‘capitalism’ but they’re embracing socialism,” he said. “And I think they don’t understand what that means. We’ve had people try to make it more acceptable by calling it ‘democratic socialism.’ But we’re going to have opportunities to teach there at UVU and talk about what has really made America great.
“The ‘ism’ that’s raised more people out of poverty than anything else in the history of the world,” Herbert added, “is free market capitalism, and so that will be a part of what we’re going to try to teach at UVU.”
Once his schedule opens up next month, Herbert said he also plans to work on his golf game, spend more time with his family and play some tennis. Just don’t call it retirement.
“My dad said, ‘A man’s got to have a reason to get up in the morning’ and I’m sure we’re going to find reasons,” he said. “I don’t think retirement is something I would do or even be happy doing. We’re just going to change our work responsibilities to something else.”
— Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report
Editor’s note • Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.