Utah's first woman governor rules with grit and charm
SALT LAKE CITY — There are things about Olene Walker that come as no surprise. Like the nickname. Yes, Mrs. Walker has been the governor of Utah for several months now. Yet even here, sitting in the august confines of her office in a regal red suit, the recently promoted lieutenant governor exudes a grits-and-cornbread charm that explains why legislative colleagues called her "Aunt Bea."
She is, after all, the mother of seven, the grandmother of 25, and - at 73 - the oldest governor in the nation. But for those who imagined that she would simply serve out her predecessor's term as a "grandmother in chief," Walker has been full of surprises - from controversial vetoes to defiance of the state's congressional delegation.
Less than six months after assuming the post vacated by Gov. Michael Leavitt, who departed to head the US Environmental Protection Agency, Walker has become something of a celebrity.
Indeed, Utah's first woman governor has dined with President George Bush and swapped one-liners with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Her approval ratings sit above 70 percent. And she has declared that she will run for her own four-year term this fall.
To those that know her best, this is public recompense for a life of grace filled with largely anonymous achievements. Others merely wonder if she has just gotten in over her head. Regardless of what answers come in the weeks before the state's May 8 Republican convention, however, Walker has successfully cast herself as a political pioneer more than just a smiling steward.
"She got in and made some tough stands," says Dan Jones, a political scientist at the University of Utah. "She is someone [legislators] have to contend with."
Tough stands are nothing new to Walker. For her, life has been about toughness since it began on a farm in northern Utah in the depth of the Depression. There was hay to haul, cows to milk, and tackle football to play with her brothers.
"I understand the value of hard work," she says.
It's a statement that no one who knows Walker would dare dispute. This is a mother who, at almost 50 years old, earned a doctorate in education by setting aside the time from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. to research and write her thesis. This is a woman who, as lieutenant governor, needed to have two security details assigned to her during the 2002 Winter Olympics because she worked from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. "I'm the type of person who has never needed that much sleep," she grins.
After receiving a master's in political science from Stanford in the 1950s, she was set to explore Italy on a scholarship. Instead, seven children followed in 11 years, as well as 13 moves in 10 years. When she and her husband finally resettled in Utah to run a potato-chip business, her plans to become a teacher were replaced by a desire to be home with her children.
"I was the PTA chair at every school because when you have seven children, that's what you do," she says.
Now, nearly 25 years into her second career - politics - that activity still permeates everything she does. Staffers recall instances when, as lieutenant governor, Walker would save time by sticking her head out the car window on the way to work to dry her hair.
On this day, her feet are what demand attention. They don't stop. Shuttling between the backrooms of the state Capitol complex, Walker meets a group of high schoolers to declare Utah Model United Nations Day then on to announce Utah's participation in the National Day of Prayer to a clutch of pastors.
"We would like to pray for you," says one as a show of goodwill.
"Good, I need it," Walker shoots back with a wink.
The moment is pure Olene. From her four terms as a state legislator in the 1980s to today, her kindness and charm have been her political stock in trade. "She doesn't project the John Wayne image," says Genevieve Atwood, who served in the state Senate while Walker was in the House. "She looks a little soft and really friendly and really easy to get close to."
"There is that sort of Aunt Bea quality," adds Vicki Varela, press secretary for Walker's predecessor, Governor Leavitt.
At times, however, that ease and humility has overshadowed her thorough knowledge of the issues - particularly the budget. During one budget hearing when Walker was in the legislature, a male lawmaker turned to her and exclaimed: "How can a sweet thing like you understand all those things?" recalls Afton Bradshaw, a friend and former legislator.
In fact, as a legislator Walker was a primary architect of Utah's rainy-day fund. And as lieutenant governor, she reformed children's healthcare and played a major role in overhauling the welfare system.
"She is very easy to underestimate," says Ms. Atwood. "Part of it is that she is often pushing other people into the spotlight."
And part of it is that she just doesn't fit the typical image of a governor. On a recent trip to a local elementary school with her husband of 50 years, someone spoke a few words of introduction for the students and then pointed to the governor. The problem was, Walker laughs, the person pointed to her husband, Myron. Myron corrected the mistake, and one child responded, "But she just looks like a mom."
"At least he didn't say grandmother," Walker smiles.
These days, fewer people don't recognize Walker's face. At a national governor's meeting, she sat at a table with President Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger - and exacted a promise that he would campaign for her. At home, she has gained popularity for opposing a plan to ship high-level nuclear waste to Utah - a plan supported by the state's congressional delegation.
Not all her moves, however, have met with approval. This week, the Legislature met to override several of Walker's vetoes - only the third such session in 19 years. Legislators see an end to the honeymoon as conservative Republicans increasingly clash with the more moderate Walker.
"Some in the Legislature probably now view her as an obstacle," says state Sen. John Valentine.
Six months ago, few might have thought Walker would have caused such a stir - much less run for election. But leaning back in her chair in a rare moment of calm, Walker reflects on her brief tenure and sees much bigger forces at work than any one bill or election.
"Win or lose," she says, "I think I'm leaving a stepping stone to show that any individual has the ability to become governor."