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Outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert On The Coronavirus Pandemic And Being A ‘Common-Sense Conservative’

Photo of Utah Governor Gary Herbert speaking into a microphone
2018 pool photo
Salt Lake Tribune
Gov. Gary Herbert took office in 2009, finishing out the term of his predecessor, former Gov. Jon Huntsman. He’ll be succeeded by his lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert leaves office in two weeks, after serving more than 11 years as the state’s executive.

KUER’s Emily Means spoke with Herbert about his time leading the state.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Emily Means: You’re currently the longest-serving governor in the nation. You started out as lieutenant governor and became governor when your predecessor, Jon Huntsman, left office in August of 2009. What made you want to run again after you finished out Huntsman’s term?

Gary Herbert: Well, I've liked the job, number one. There's not been a day that I have not looked forward to going to the office. Some days are better than others, but I've enjoyed the work. It seems to suit my personality and I'm very willing to roll up my sleeves and go to work. I don't think anybody would question that I've been a hardworking governor, whether you agree with what I've done or not.

I thought we were in a good place for me to step up. We were turning the corner on the Great Recession. That was important for me, and we needed to continue to have continuity [in leadership]. [But] I'm kind of a term limits guy. I have no question if I wanted to run again, I could have probably won a fourth term, but it was time to move on and let other people have a chance. And so I enjoyed the work. You contribute when you think you can, and I did.

EM: When you became governor that year, Utah and the nation were just exiting the Great Recession and still dealing with that economic aftermath. What was it like taking on that responsibility as soon as you took office?

GH: Well, the good news for me was I came from the private sector. I started two or three, probably four different businesses that were all successful, so it was a good foundation for me. I'd [also] been in local government for many years. And then after spending four-and-a-half years as lieutenant governor, I was ready to hit the road running. I didn't have to learn on the job.

EM: So you didn't really feel like you had just been handed a crisis and didn't really know what to do with it?

GH: Not at all. You know, we have the ups and downs in the business cycle — I knew that as a businessman. It was a tough time — I don't want to make light of the challenge — but it was not as hard as we had in the 1980s.

I knew what we needed to do and what had to happen to get the market going. I put good people around us. We put a plan in place to recover. And by golly, I became the “chief cheerleader,” and then I went from chief cheerleader to the “CBO” of the state, which is the “chief bragging officer,” because we had these great successes that happened over time. And our goal to become number one in the nation was realized about three years ago — number one, the best performing economy and the most diverse economy in America.

EM: I think it’s safe to say the pandemic is the defining crisis of your last year in office. Reflecting back on this year, what did Utah do well, and what else could the state have done, with you at the helm?

GH: Hindsight is always 20/20, but frankly, we had the best information available at the time, which changed over time. We got different information from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], from the World Health Organization, we got different information from the administration. We were caught in a situation where we had to act quickly. We did the best thing we could based on the information we had. And looking back and saying, “well, if we had known that, then we would have done something differently” is just too easy.

EM: You called yourself Utah's biggest cheerleader, particularly around how well this state has done in business and for the pandemic and economic recovery. Right now, a lot of people might take issue with that because there are still so many who are out of work and whose incomes have been impacted by the pandemic. Could you speak to that a little bit? What more can Utah be doing to not only make sure its economy is supported, but the wellbeing of the people who live here are, too?

GH: Well, until we reach perfection, which I don't think is going to happen any time soon, there's always going to be room for improvement. And so we still have grave concern for those who are out of work. So that being said, we know that rural Utah is not having as much success as urbanized Utah. We've put an emphasis on that — of creating a number of jobs over these last few years, which has happened. We still need to have more done there. Technology is going to allow that to happen.

EM: You're the second-longest serving governor in Utah's history. What do you hope you are remembered for?

GH: I don't know what my legacy is going to be. You know, that’s for some others to probably decide. We've had success in many areas. We've had a lot of challenges that we've been able to overcome.

I've been very inclusive. I'm clearly right of center politically, but also I want to be known as a common-sense conservative. Common sense has been lost with some of the rhetoric, I think, out there in the political community today [both] on the left and the right. I'm moderate in tone. I don't think you get a lot done by yelling at people and saying, ‘I'm right, you're wrong’, and making it us-versus-them and I'm inclusive in process. I'll sit around the table with anybody.

I do believe to my very core that the best hope for America is not found in Washington, D.C. The best hope for America is found in the states. They're really solving the problems that reflect the will of the people in their regions. And they're getting things done and the best state in America — which is a great example and really is the beacon on the hill — is Utah.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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