John Hollenhorst ReportingA stunning announcement from President Bush will have a huge impact on Utah's political scene. Governor Leavitt is the president's choice for a cabinet position as leader of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The announcement means the Governor will likely resign from office in the next few months. And Utah will have an important voice in Washington, placed high in the President's inner-circle. It's one of Utah's biggest political stories in years.
Get used to hearing this phrase: "Governor Olene Walker." Assuming the U.S. Senate approves Mike Leavitt for the cabinet job, Lieutenant Governor Olene Walker will likely become Governor. And try to imagine next year's gubernatorial race, the first in a dozen years without Mike Leavitt on the ballot.
President Bush flew into Denver today for a rendezvous with Governor Leavitt. The President says the Governor is his man to replace embattled EPA administrator Christie Whitman, also a moderate former Governor.
"Mike Leavitt will come to the EPA with a strong environmental record and a strong desire to improve on what has taken place during the last three decades," President Bush said.
The Governor portrayed himself as an environmental moderate and took credit for a cleaner environment in Utah. He promised a similar commitment to the nation.
"I'll leave it a better place than I find it. I'll plant seeds for a future generation, and I'll give it all I have," Governor Leavitt said.
Whatever the politics behind the announcement, there was no doubt a personal element as well.
Dan Jones, Pollster: “Governor Leavitt has always felt very close to President Bush. He and Mrs. Bush and the Leavitt’s have been very close friends when President Bush was Governor of Texas.”
The announcement ends a long, nerve-wracking guessing game. For months the question has been, "will he or won't he run for an unprecedented 4th term."
A recent KSL DESERT NEWS poll gave the Governor a less-than-encouraging opinion from the public. 49 percent said they didn't want him to run again.
Some wonder opportunity in Washington helped push the Governor out of a tough race.
Rep. Greg Curtis, House Majority Leader: "I don't think he was pushed at all. He may have looked at it and said, what other things can I accomplish, and what can I accomplish in this position?"
His future in Washington isn't likely to be a free ride. Senate confirmation proceedings will likely focus on his environmental record and the state's environmental image. Both are highly controversial and potential fodder for a lively senate discussion about Mike Leavitt.
Still, pollster Dan Jones says, "It's going to be a fight. But Bush doesn't usually lose."
If Leavitt is confirmed for the job, he'll be a major force on environmental issues.
Sen. Michael Waddoups, Senate Majority Leader: "Having Governor Leavitt there I think is good for the west and good for Utah."
As for his apparent departure from next years governor's race, numerous well known names could jump into the race, names like Jon Huntsman Junior, Scott Matheson Junior, Nolan Karras, Marty Stephens and several more.
Dan Jones, Pollster: "Scott Matheson Junior would have been formidable for any of them. This is one time the democrats have been energized. And so I think it's going to be one of the most exciting gubernatorial elections since 1960."