In a special report for Utah Policy Daily, Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, interviewed Michael O. Leavitt, former Utah governor and secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Kirk Jowers: As a former Governor of Utah, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Secretary of Health and Human Services, you have a unique insight on the political process as we head into the state conventions this weekend. Thank you for your willingness to answer a few of my and my students' questions.
Before we talk about the politics of today, tell us what you are doing now?
Gov. Leavitt: I spent the first chapter of my career as a businessman and enjoyed it very much. In 1992, I began the second chapter of my career by serving the people of Utah as the 14th governor and later as a member of Pres. George W. Bush’s cabinet. Now, as the Chairman of Leavitt Partners, I bring together the lessons learned in both of the first two chapters and advise people who invest in health care. It is a rigorous and timely subject, especially right now.
One more thing. When you’ve spent as much time as I have in public service people will often ask, “What are you running for next?” Well, the answer is that I’m not running for anything. I’m serving in an executive capacity, working on issues and with people whom I enjoy very much, and spending time with my wife, children and grandchildren.
Kirk Jowers: Tomorrow, selected delegates from both major political parties will meet at their respective state conventions. Utah has a unique system of electing its candidates. It is the only state to have a caucus-convention system that mandates a 40% barrier-to-entry for candidates (with no "escape hatch" for a candidate to make the ballot such as through a petition process) to make it onto the primary ballot. The practical effect is that many high school student body officers are elected with more votes than a United States Senator or Governor. I am urging minor reforms that I call "Commend the Delegate and Correct the System." The proposed changes would include the parties moving the threshold to candidates needing 20 or 25% in order to make the ballot. What are your thoughts about our system and this or other proposed reforms?
Gov. Leavitt: It has often been the case that candidates who finish second at the convention ultimately prevail in the primary election. I think it is likely that we would occasionally see candidates who finished third at convention chosen by primary voters. This is telling and informs you that the system is ripe for a reexamination.
Jowers: This week, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon crossed party lines and selected Representative Sheryl Allen as his running mate. What do you think of the pick? Will it make a difference in the race?
Leavitt: I do not think this race will be decided, or even heavily influenced, by the selection of a running mate. I believe that most Utah voters will conclude that Gov. Herbert has distinguished himself while in office and is deserving of another term.
That said, Peter Corroon is a fine candidate and Rep. Allen rounds out the ticket in a way that will be attractive to some Utah voters, particularly disenfranchised Republicans.
When you boil it down, elections are about competing visions. In the governor’s race, I believe that Utahns will ultimately side with the values and vision of the Utah Republican Party that is very ably represented by Gary Herbert.
Jowers: A major dispute among the candidates in the United States Senate race is the value of seniority in the Senate. Can you explain in more practical terms what is at stake when a state replaces a senior senator?
Leavitt: Seniority is important in the Senate and particularly important for a small state like Utah. I’m not one to support seniority for seniority’s sake, but if you have two candidates who will vote similarly on the major issues of the day, I think you have to consider the importance of influence and power within the Senate and the value of this prominence to our state. The simple fact is that senior senators head critical committees and are accorded far more influence. Accordingly, a more seasoned senator is infinitely more able to protect his state’s interests and ensure that his state receives a fair share of its federal tax dollars.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many fine Republican candidates competing for the privilege of representing Utah. We are fortunate to have this caliber of people willing to put their name on a ballot. But when the final ballots are counted, Utah is seriously advantaged by having a Senator who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, as well as a ranking member on other important committees such as energy and water.
Jowers: I have recently been inundated with interviews from national (e.g., Fox News Channel, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal) and international (e.g., the United Kingdom’s Guardian) media, which are universally astounded that a “respected incumbent senator” who is a declared and active candidate may not even appear on the ballot. Besides wanting to understand "our peculiar system," many of these reporters have asked whether the citizens of Utah will accept the new senator if they were never able to exercise their right to vote for Senator Bennett or his opponent. Will they?
Leavitt: It would be regrettable if convention delegates deny rank and file Republican primary voters a chance to decide an election involving a person whom they have nominated and elected three times. If in a primary election, a candidate—incumbent or not – gets fewer votes, so be it. But, in cases like this, it’s unwise to deny rank and file Republicans a chance to make this decision at the voting booth. It would disenfranchise tens of thousands of Republicans and will have an impact on the Party’s capacity to elect other worthy candidates. Representative Chaffetz, for example, has been afforded far more respect and legitimacy by beating former Representative Cannon in the primary than had he merely escaped through the convention.
Jowers: The recent survey conducted by Dan Jones & Associates for KSL and the Deseret News, in partnership with the Utah Foundation and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, reveals that women comprised approximately 55% of the registered-Republican vote and 60% of the Democratic vote in the 2008 election, but are noticeably underrepresented in the ranks of current Republican and Democratic delegates as women make up only 25% and 43% of the delegates. Likewise, younger voters are significantly underrepresented--which is of particular concern to college students. The survey also reveals that Republican voters and delegates agree on only two of the same top five issues. Do you have any suggestions that might make delegates more representative of the voters they represent?
Leavitt: This has been a problem for some time. I’m particularly troubled by the significant impact it has on the number of women in office generally.
I was pleased to serve in partnership with Utah’s first female lieutenant governor and watched with pride as she distinguished herself as the first female governor. We need more Olene Walkers in this state, not less.
This takes us back to the caucus system. You’ll remember that the caucus system resulted in a very worthy, popular, and sitting female governor not even getting the chance to be selected in a primary. I’m uncomfortable with that outcome. I also believe that we need to take steps to get more people involved at all levels of politics, government, and public service. I am concerned that our current system may foster apathy generally when citizens are not permitted to vote because primaries have been bypassed and specifically with groups that may feel unrepresented.
Jowers: One final question. What advice would you give to students who are interested in public service? How should they prepare and what will give them the best chance of succeeding?
Leavitt: Great question. My interest started in the world of observation as I watched my father in the Utah Legislature. That led to the world of involvement as I helped with several campaigns, including Ronald Reagan’s. Ultimately, I developed an interest and willingness to seek public office.
As I look back I’m reminded of the privilege that is public service. There is no question that government service is a trust between the governed and those who govern. It is demanding, complex and rewarding … all at the same time. Mostly, it is great honor for which I thank the people of Utah for affording me.
I would tell students that there is no “secret sauce” for their preparation or success in the public realm. Students should follow their interests, get involved, speak out, learn from others, find mentors, work hard and stay at it. I have no doubt that Utah will be better because of their involvement and I commend the Hinckley Institute and you for encouraging them along the way.
Jowers: Thank you for your life of public service and taking the time to answer these questions.