Grandmother Poised To Become Utah Governor
By Erin Madigan, Staff Writer
She's not your typical grandmother. But Utah Lt. Gov. Olene Walker (R) wouldn't be a typical governor either.
The 72-year-old grandmother of 25 didn't get into politics until she was 50 years old, but she's now poised to become the first woman to assume Utah's top job.
That's if Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt is confirmed by the U.S. Senate to replace former New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman (R) as administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Leavitt's confirmation hearings are currently underway in Washington, D.C.
Walker would become the ninth sitting governor who served as lieutenant governor and bring the total of female governors to seven.
"If I become governor I have a great challenge. I would have to make it a very productive time so that other women coming along in the legislative and political process would use my term as a stepping stone," Walker told Stateline.org.
Walker, who's not jumping into the governor's chair just yet, said she'd be honored to replace Leavitt if he goes to Washington, D.C. She gave up a bid for U.S. Congress in 1992 to be his running mate in the state's gubernatorial election. "I decided I'd better stay in Utah because I knew the problems in Utah and probably could be more effective in the state than at the national level," Walker said.
Walker views herself as a caring and concerned politician -- the exact words colleagues used to describe her. "She's a very warm person, very friendly, and she works well with both sides of the aisle. One of the things I always remember about Olene is that she brings her husband and many of her grandkids to National Lieutenant Governors Meetings ... that was always a lot of fun," fellow Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican from Oklahoma, told Stateline.org.
Walker's large family gives her a built-in campaign staff. Her seven children and 25 grandchildren pitch in by putting up signs and handing out brochures, she said.
"I tried to include my family in my political life as much as I could," Walker said. "I've been so busy that I'm not a great baby-sitter."
She calls her family close-knit and said she owes much of her success to them. Her decision to get into politics was inspired in large part by her parent's civic influence her father was superintendent of schools in her hometown, Ogden, Utah, and her mother was a teacher. Both parents were active in the community and the Mormon Church.
After meeting as undergraduate students at Brigham Young University, Walker and her husband Myron, a Harvard Business School grad, have been married for 49 years. She's lived all over the country because of her husband's work. The couple moved 13 times in 10 years from Pacific Grove, Calif., to Boston to Albuquerque to Phoenix to Denver.
But Walker's personal life and political career are firmly rooted in her home state, arguably one of the most conservative in the country. The GOP holds every statewide office and has dominated the Legislature for more than a quarter-century.
Utah state Sen. Mike Dmitrich (D), the Senate minority leader, knows that all too well. But Dmitrich said he's pleased about the prospect of Walker assuming the governor's office.
"She's the kind of person who will strive to get along with everybody and if she wants something bad enough she will work her butt off to get it. She'll get right up there on the floor and start twisting your arm and putting the pressure on you to vote her way. She's good," Dmitrich told Stateline.org.
Walker said "without a question," her family is her greatest accomplishment, but politically she's proud to have sponsored legislation to form the state's "rainy day" fund, which she said has helped the state battle its budget crisis and the current economic downturn.
Walker holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Brigham Young University, a master's in political theory from Stanford University and a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Utah.
Prior to becoming lieutenant governor, she served in the Legislature from 1981 to 1989, founded and directed the Salt Lake Education Foundation and worked as vice president of a family-owned business, Country Crisp Foods.
Utah doesn't have a secretary of state, so as lieutenant governor Walker oversees elections and is helping the state update their antiquated punch-card voting machines and implement the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA).
During her years in the Statehouse, she chaired the health policy commission, which developed the state children's health insurance program (CHIP). She also pushed legislation on education and economic development issues. In addition, she's worked extensively on welfare reform and affordable housing and in tribute, the state named the Olene Walker Housing Trust Fund after her.
If Walker becomes governor she'd serve the remaining 15 months of Leavitt's term and also appoint a new lieutenant governor. She hasn't ruled out running for governor in her own right.
"There's no question I would have thought about it had I been younger. Even if (Leavitt) stayed until the end of his term, I probably would have given it some consideration," Walker said. "Age would be a factor, but you have to always say, Well, Bob Dole and President Reagan ran at this age. And I'm pretty healthy.'"