Politicians willing to spend political capital on their ideas come around less often than rainy days during an inversion. Utah has lost two of them this year.
Their lives as public servants prove one thing. People often clamor for leaders who put principle ahead of politics, but the rare politicians who do so often get crushed for it.
Former Gov. Norm Bangerter, who died in April, survived a raucous political convention in 1988 to
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avoid a primary, then squeaked by in the general election to win a second term. He had led an effort to raise taxes for education, which he felt was necessary.
The second example, former Gov. Olene Walker, died last weekend. It might be said of her that she spent political capital like a sailor on shore leave. The result was not as happy as Bangerter’s.
Delegates to Utah’s Republican state convention, weighted heavily toward right-wing ideology, made sure she didn’t make it to the ballot in 2004. Meanwhile, a Dan Jones & Associates opinion poll, taken at the same time, showed she had an 80 percent approval rating among the non-delegate public.
That may stand as the biggest reason yet for changing how Utah selects its candidates.
I say that as someone who sometimes opposed her ideas. Her ever-present smile and occasional hug said she took no personal offense. That did not mean, however, that she gave an inch on her personal passion for important causes.
My office still contains a copy of her “Recommendations on a tax structure for Utah’s future.” It is an inch thick and heavy enough to inform any briefcase of its presence. It also stands as Exhibit A in defense of how Walker valued principle over politics.
It’s the kind of thing a governor with a large election mandate might have proposed, but Walker never was elected.
And by the time the proposal was finished, Walker’s political career was finished, as well, the end of her 426 days in office visible on the horizon.
After 11 years as the state’s lieutenant governor, Walker had ascended to the governor’s office after President George W. Bush asked Gov. Mike Leavitt to join his administration. But she was no caretaker for Leavitt’s agenda. She made every second in the governor’s chair count.
Convention delegates rejected Walker’s election bid in May of 2004. Political prudence — and perhaps even common sense — would have suggested she let the tax reform effort go the way of the Bamberger Express or any number of other failed ventures — but she carried on.
The final proposal, released in late November after Jon Huntsman Jr., had been elected to replace her, remains as perhaps the most ambitious reform effort ever proposed in the state.
It would have overhauled Utah’s tax system, shifted much of the burden from income to property and sales taxes, and done away with a lot of special exemptions and local options. Water districts would have had to charge people for the actual cost of providing water, which remains a radical idea to this drought-stricken day. Even though her plan would have raised property taxes by about $300 million, she insisted a family of four earning $50,000 would pay less overall.
Lawmakers smiled politely and put the proposal aside. My copy may be one of the few that survives.
Exhibit B of Walker’s character was her decision to veto a bill to allow
private-school vouchers for the parents of disabled children. She didn’t just veto it, she kept the money appropriated for it and gave it to the Board of Education to contract with private schools that help students with disabilities.
That one spelled her political doom. I opposed her decision, as well, but there was no denying she did what she felt was right, and she wasn’t afraid to lead. The tricky thing about principles is that people want you to stick them only if they agree.
Walker may be remembered as Utah’s first, and so far only, female governor, but she was much more.
Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Olene Walker didn’t just discuss ideas, she championed them above all else.