ST. GEORGE — One day after announcing another run for governor, Jon Huntsman Jr. made a swing through St. George. The daylong event included a visit to Tech Ridge and a Q&A student forum at Dixie State University.
During the hourlong forum, the former Utah governor touched on many issues he believes are important to Southern Utah and the state as a whole, including managing growth, education, air quality, water issues and his views on China and Russia becoming more prominent on the global scene.
The first question came from Taylor Godfrey, Dixie State student body president, who asked why Huntsman wanted to run for governor again.
“Coming most recently from a couple of countries that are our biggest rivals, mainly China and Russia, that don’t have widespread elections, at least in the case of Russians … and you fall in love with our form of democracy in this republic,” Huntsman said. “I have done it before, and I am excited about doing it again because it is all about participation at the grassroots level.”
Huntsman was governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009. He left office midway through his second term to accept an appointment under the Obama administration to serve as the United States ambassador to China. Under the Trump administration, Huntsman accepted a similar role in Russia, where he resigned that position effective Oct. 3.
When Huntsman left the Utah governor’s mansion, his approval rating was more than 80%.
In addition to serving as the U.S. ambassador to China and Russia, Huntsman was the U.S. ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush from 1992 to 1993.
“I know we have a lot of problems in this country,” Huntsman said. “We are divided, we are polarized too much in my mind, but we still have this beautiful system of elections, where people turn out … and it really is a beautiful thing. It’s a great honor and humbling to be able to announce again a run for governor.”
Although Huntsman identifies as a Republican, he said he is more of a Libertarian.
“I’ve always believed in public service,” he said. “I hate politics. I don’t consider myself a politician. I consider myself a public servant. It is what I believe in and is a core value of mine.”
Huntsman’s initial run for governor in 2004 was motivated out of a desire to make a sea change in the economic climate of the state. He said Utah was falling behind economically. What was needed was an economic engine to get the state moving in the right direction.
Running on a 10-point plan, Huntsman is proud that every goal he envisioned was accomplished. This time around, Huntsman is planning a similar campaign and the development of a plan of action to address many of the state’s issues.
“The 2020 election (offers) an open seat,” Huntsman said. “I thought the best service I did during my career was as governor. We worked with people, found solutions and moved forward, and that is what led me to the decision to run again.”
“Why am I running this time,” Huntsman said. “It’s because we are the victims of our own success. We’ve driven this state to the point that we are bursting at the seams. Low unemployment is great, we are riding high, everything looks good, but now our biggest challenge isn’t necessarily economic growth, it’s how are we going to accommodate the next million people who want to call Utah home.”
According to the United States Census Bureau, St. George’s population has skyrocketed during the past handful of years.
It was estimated that between 2010 and 2017 the city grew by 11,418 residents. In 2017, the estimated population ballooned to 84,500 residents. By 2018, the total population was set at 87,275.
With this same growth rate, it is projected that the city’s population will reach 103,154 by 2023.
“You are ground zero for population growth here in Washington County,” Huntsman said. “How do you shoehorn another million people over the next 10 years into this state while preserving the quality of life that we all enjoy? That’s the question.”
In answer to the question, Huntsman said the state needs to tackle issues such as infrastructure, education, transportation and economic development.
“Just like before, we are going to put together a plan and it’s going to address our options and our growth,” he said.”The key is how do you stay ahead of the growth curve, managing our way forward, making the right choices so that we do not become another state that loses its competitive edge.”
“We’ve dropped the ball on mental health,” Huntsman said. “We’ve had a collective failure on mental health and everybody knows it, and nobody knows what to do about it.”
Huntsman points to Utah’s suicide rate as being too high.
“That wasn’t the case when I was growing up,” he said. “What’s the deal? We’ve got to do something about this. It’s not a government fix, although the government can convene to bring the right stakeholders together. This is an all-hands-on-deck issue.”
According to an August 2019 report conducted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, nearly 20% of adults suffer from poor mental health and 15% of boys and 25% of girls ages 15-17 considered attempting suicide from 2015 to 2017.
“This is a clarion call to get it right,” Huntsman said.”We’ve let too many people and too many families down, and we should not let that continue.”
Running for the presidency
When asked why run for governor and not president, Huntsman said that he attempted that once, but things didn’t turn out so well, having made a run for the top elected office in the nation during the 2012 election, ultimately dropping out of the race and endorsing then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“Running for president was a strange experience,” Huntsman said. “It’s not about problem-solving, it’s not about putting forward issues that really matter. It is an entertainment show, and I am not a great entertainer.”
Huntsman found running for president “enormously” frustrating.
“It’s one of those things you look back on and realize that we all make mistakes,” he added. “I just didn’t have the stomach for that.”
Huntsman cited the United States Constitution and its 10th Amendment as where to look for answers to state and local issues.
“Let the laboratories of democracy do their thing, and those are the states,” he said.
The 10th Amendment defines the balance of power between the federal government and the states. The amendment says that the federal government has only the powers specifically granted by the Constitution.
China and Russia
Joking with the audience, Huntsman said living in China and Russia you learn how to “run away from thugs pretty effectively.”
Huntsman added that you can’t leave either country without understanding that the world has evolved into a single superpower, the United States.
“By virtue of our economy, our military, our self-starting sustaining society and our value set, there is no other country out there who is in our league,” Huntsman said.
There was one note of distinction with regards to China and Russia, Huntsman added, both could be considered as becoming “great” countries, especially China.
“China has a sustainable model and the Russians don’t,” he said. “A sustainable model would be an economy that is almost the same size as ours at $20 trillion, a stable political system, a culture that has been unified and cohesive, and a pretty stable neighborhood, which is what the Chinese have.”
Huntsman said Russia cannot be compared to China because of its president, Vladimir Putin.
“Putin is a one-man show,” he said. “He is off the stage in 2024 and nobody knows who is going to take his place. They are a power, not because of the economics, but because they have as many nuclear weapons as we do.”
The Russian economy also can’t compare at $1.5 trillion, which is about as much as Texas.
“Their model is not sustainable,” Huntsman said. “After Putin, who knows? They are going to have to create a new system of spoils for the oligarchs, which is going to collapse at some point.”
The United States is inexorably connected to how the rest of the world is trending, he said.
“Being a diplomat is like being a dad, it’s like being a governor, you have to find solutions,” Huntsman said. “You have to bring people together who are sometimes at war, who are highly antagonistic like the Russians, and you have to sit at the same table … to find solutions.”
Huntsman said at the end of the day, being governor was easy, but the hard part is seeing what was coming around the bend.
“Taxpayers pay you your salary to keep the state out of trouble and to mitigate risk,” he said. “You don’t mitigate risk with the status quo because it will catch up to you. It will eat you alive. No state can survive unless you have a cash flow that allows you to pay the bills.”
Currently, the Utah Legislature is considering changes to the state tax code that could include a tax cut, imposing a sales tax on food, as well as the potential of dipping into education funds to pay for other wants and needs.
“Everything is based on priorities,” Huntsman said. “Education has to be a top priority when you are putting a budget together. It’s not just overall funding, it’s looking at where are the dollars going and what are we getting for those dollars.”
In that equation, there is currently not a lot of clarity, he added.
“We are not quite sure where the money is being used and if it is being used efficiently.”
On the suggestion to place a tax on food, Huntsman takes a moral stance.
“Food security is a real issue,” he said. “I hear the economic arguments, but there is a moral argument as well that is not being represented.”
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