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Interview with Olene Walker, Utah's first female Governor

Building on the example of community involvement her parents set when she was a child, Olene Walker took the money she had made working a part-time job and filed to run for the Utah State Legislature in 1980.

Author: Debbie Hummel, Exoro Group

Building on the example of community involvement her parents set when she was a child, Olene Walker took the money she had made working a part-time job and filed to run for the Utah State Legislature in 1980. “That’s when I found out I was a Republican running in the third most Democratic district in the state,” Walker said of her early learning experiences entering politics at age 50. Walker won that race and she would leave the political arena 25 years later having served as Utah’s first, and to this date only, female Governor.

Walker majored in Political Science and served as a student body officer at Brigham Young University. She went on to get masters and doctoral degrees from Stanford and the University of Utah. After marrying Myron Walker and starting a family, she said she was always involved in parent teacher organizations and other community groups. “But I didn’t get terribly involved (in politics) until I had five or six people say, ‘why don’t you run?’” she said.

Walker said it seems a lot of women don’t make the leap into running for office until they get that kind of encouragement and they should learn to jump in on their own. “Women bring a great deal to the political arena but probably the greatest virtue needed is perseverance,” she said. “You can’t look at it as a popularity contest. You have to look at it as a learning experience.”

Too often women run and if they lose they feel they’ve been rejected, Walker thinks. Instead, those losses should be looked at as good experience expressing one’s ideas and, more importantly, an opportunity to learn what issues are important to constituents.

“Even in losing it’s a learning process,” she said. “here’s no room for being timid.”

She was a quick study.

During her four terms in Utah’s House of Representatives, Walker became a leader. She served as majority whip and sponsored legislation creating Utah’s “Rainy Day Fund.” The fund, which serves to help the state financially during lean times, is partially credited for Utah’s good performance during the economic downturn during the early part of this decade.

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Walker said her success in the legislature came, in part, from advice from former Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter. “I asked him what I should do to become an effective legislator and he said, ‘learn the budget.’ I’d have men come to me wanting to know something about the budget,” she said. “That gained a little stature for me. My next year, they asked me to become appropriations chairman.”

After leaving the legislature in 1988, Walker was asked by former Governor Michael O. Leavitt to be his Lieutenant Governor. She served in that position for nearly three terms. Walker succeeded Leavitt when he accepted a position as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2003. He is currently the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

While Walker’s time as Governor was short and she was unsuccessful in making it out of the state’s Republican convention during the 2004 race, she feels she accomplished a lot. “We set out with 14 initiatives and accomplished all of them,” she said.

Among her legacy are an elementary school reading program, a fund to create affordable housing for the needy and a program that helps to transition foster children to adulthood. Walker will never forget leaving an event for the foster program and having a handful of young adults follow her out of the room to thank her because they were now in college or otherwise moving on with their adult lives as a result of the program.

“Nothing can buy those kinds of feelings of, yes, I made some kind of difference,” Walker said. Walker believes women bring a different dimension to politics and encourages women to become involved. “To have a mother who’s involved … the issues become far more real to (children) then. They’re far more understandable if they’ve been discussed at the dinner table,” she said.

Walker says a political career may not encompass a lifetime. She waited until her children were nearly grown and still spent more than two decades in politics, she said. “One thing I would like women to realize is that serving in a city council, a school board or the Legislature is probably the best education a woman can get. I have college degrees but I feel I learned more in the Legislature,” Walker said.

Since leaving political office Walker continues to sit on several national boards including a national committee for the National Academies, which advises on issues of Science, Medicine and Engineering, and the National Park Conservation Board. She and her husband served a mission for their church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where she describes their assignment as building bridges with ambassadors of the United Nations. That experience informed Walker’s opinions looking toward the 2008 presidential election, she said.

“I saw the great role the president plays in showing leadership in the international arena,” she said. “We could be doing that in maybe a more diplomatic way than we currently are.” Walker said she’s supporting Mitt Romney right now but revels at the proximity her political career has given her. “I know several of them. See what getting involved in politics does for you?” she laughed. “It is fun to have met most all of them who are running.”



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