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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- She may be Utah's accidental governor, but no one questions Olene Walker's resolve.
Walker, who made history in early November as the first woman to take charge of the state, was named Wednesday as The Salt Lake Tribune's person of the year.
Although she's been the state's chief executive for barely two months, the newspaper called her "a shrewd politician, a woman determined to make a difference with the power she has earned."
Walker, who was lieutenant governor for 11 years -- another first in Utah for a woman -- took the top job when former Gov. Mike Leavitt left the state to became head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Each year Tribune editors and publisher choose a "Utahn of the Year" based on the person's influence over public affairs. The distinction last year went to Mormon church president Gordon B. Hinckley for portraying his faith as a mainstream religion during the Winter Olympics -- and for his determination to survive a legal battle to control public behavior on the church-bought Main Street plaza.
Walker was praised by the newspaper as an independent-minded chief executive.
It didn't take long for the Republican to cross members of her own party: She recently offered a state budget that would divert money from once-sacred road funds to pay for more education funding. The Tribune called her anything but a caretaker.
"Even before she took office, she made it clear she would be more than a fixture on the grip-and-grin circuit and that she did not want her governorship viewed as a historical footnote," the newspaper said on its front page.
"When it appeared that members of Utah's congressional delegation had quietly greased the skids for hotter nuclear waste to come to Tooele County, Walker decisively stood in their path. She recognized Utahns' uneasiness and the need for an honest and open public debate. And just as important -- in her take-the-high-road style -- Walker gave those on the other side of the issue a graceful way to perform an about-face, knowing how today's adversaries might be tomorrow's allies."
Walker, 73, who hasn't revealed whether she will seek a four-year term as governor next year, "stands tall as a role model for girls and women," the Tribune said.
The Tribune has been naming the most influential state resident since 1997, when it gave the distinction to former Utah Jazz player Karl Malone.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)