Stateline Story

Utah's Leavitt Looks Ahead In New Leadership Role

  • September 22, 1999
  • By Joseph Giordono

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt finishes his monthly news conference, having fielded questions about a tornado that struck Salt Lake City, the upcoming winter Olympics and his "good friend" Texas Gov. George W. Bush. He unclips his microphone, turns to a reporter and asks the same question he has been asking nearly everyone he has run into in the last few weeks: "Have you read The Lexus and the Olive Tree?"

Leavitt, a 48-year old Republican, is enamored of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's new book about the global economy because it echoes his favorite refrain: That U.S. governors are among the world's most visionary leaders.

The most popular governor in Utah's history, who took over last month as chairman of the National Governors' Association (NGA), has coined a policy wonk term for his vision of a 21st Century U.S. cyber society in which the states play a prominent role -- "networked governance."

"The whole idea is central coordination and local control," Leavitt, a self-professed "federalism geek," said in a stateline.org interview.

There is no reason, he explains, that a stock trader, for example, shouldn't be able to log on to the Internet and register just one time (central coordination), but have each state individually decide whether they license him or her (local control).

With approval ratings near 80 percent, a third term in the governor's office his for the taking and a possible cabinet appointment if his buddy Bush is elected president, Leavitt is likely to have a big say in shaping the world of tomorrow.

"We now live in a world where physical boundaries are not as constructively relevant as they have been in the past. We're going to see more change in the way government is shaped in the next 10 years than we have in the last hundred combinedand states are going to be the place where we provide the solutions," he said.

As NGA's leader, Leavitt hopes to help this expanded state role he foresees become a reality. But some critics say his fascination with the future and reverence of technology is his central fault. They say it hinders his dealing with present day issues and contributes to a reluctance on his part to expend political capital.

Earlier this month, Leavitt, Lt. Governor Olene Walker and 17 cabinet members toured rural southern Utah by bus. Leavitt took the occasion to tout his new technology initiative, which would bring the Internet to rural areas by using interstate highway right-of-way strips as corridors for high-speed internet-access lines.

Not everyone shared his excitement about the idea.

At a town meeting in Richfield, a dusty ranching community about 200 miles south of Salt Lake City, bed-and-breakfast owner LeMar LeFevre told the governor: "We aren't seeing any of the great things you talk about. We're still herding cattle and sheep.

"We still care about our kids down here," LeFevre said. "I hear you talking about computers replacing teachers. Let's not go too fast with the technology."

Susan Kuziak, executive director of the Utah Education Association, faults Leavitt for failing to do more to improve schools. "I think he could have pushed a lot harder for funding. However, I credit him with making education an issue," she said.

A Deseret News poll taken in July revealed that more than half of the state's 2 million residents could not name one initiative launched by the governor in the past seven years

"That's never been a goal of mine, to be known for one thing," Leavitt said. "I don't think that's the role of a governor."

Michael Okerlund Leavitt grew up in the small southwestern Utah town of Cedar City. His father was a longtime state senator and ran an array of businesses, ranging from land holdings in Utah and Nevada to an insurance company that operated throughout the West.

A devout Mormon and one of six brothers, Leavitt graduated from Southern Utah University and went on to help run the various family businesses, excelling in insurance. He married his long-time sweetheart, Jacalyn Smith, who had been a second grade teacher in Cedar City. They have five children.

In 1976, Leavitt's father made an unsuccessful bid for the governor's office, giving him a close-up glimpse of the rigors of state politics.

The younger Leavitt followed his father's footsteps, though working behind the scenes at first instead of running as a candidate himself. His political cachet mushroomed when he successfully managed the campaigns of Gov. Norman Bangerter and Senator Jake Garn in 1984.

When Bangerter retired after two terms in 1992, Leavitt decided to run to replace him. He won a tough three-way race with 42 percent of the vote by campaigning door-to-door with a cell-phone in one hand and a list of registered voters in the other.

Leavitt cut taxes in 1994, 1995 and 1996 as the state's economy surged. In 1995 he convened a growth summit which produced a 10-year, $2.6 billion highway plan.

In 1996, he won re-election with a record 75 percent of the vote.

Acknowledging that he descended from a polygamist clan barely caused a stir during the campaign, but the issue later returned to haunt him. Utah's wink-and-nod tolerance of polygamy was shattered with the 1998 prosecution of a polygamist clan leader on charges of child abuse.

Leavitt stumbled badly, at first equating polygamy with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and refusing to condemn it. Amid much criticism, he reversed course.

Despite the setback, Leavitt had used his reputation as a shrewd consensus builder to pile up an impressive list of accomplishments. His name circulated widely in national political circles after he negotiated an enormous federal-state land transfer that boosted education funding in Utah.

He tuned up for his stint as head of the NGA by chairing the Republican Governors' Association and the Western Governors' Association. While critics say he never went out on a limb in these positions, supporters say his caution is one of his most valuable political instincts.

"Mike is a person who before he makes a move has got to understand what the risks are. That doesn't mean he doesn't take risks, it means he has to know what they are first," said Bud Scruggs, a longtime friend and former political consulting partner.

"If Leavitt wasn't from such a small state, and I'm not kidding, he would be among the top two or three names we'd be hearing for president," said Washington, D.C. lobbyist and native Utahn Tom Korologos.