SALT LAKE CITY — As he prepares to leave office, Governor Gary Herbert said the feeling is "bittersweet."
But he told FOX 13 in an interview on Monday he did not expect to be governor.
"It’s been an improbable journey. Not one that I’ve planned on, or counted on, or even prepared for, from that standpoint," Gov. Herbert said. "But it’s been an exciting journey nonetheless but one that I’m very glad I was able to take."
Beginning his career in politics as a Utah County commissioner before becoming Lt. Governor to then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., he ascended to office in 2009 when Huntsman resigned to be U.S. Ambassador to China. Gov. Herbert has spent 16 years in state government, 12 of them as governor.
In the wide-ranging interview, Gov. Herbert reflected on successes, regrets and the state of politics. He plans to deliver a farewell address to the people of Utah on Dec. 28.
The governor counts Utah's economic successes as some of his biggest accomplishments, taking office during a recession.
"We now have the most healthy, diverse economy in America," he said. "Which is no small feat. That bodes well for the future because we continue to grow and add economic opportunity for jobs throughout the state."
Gov. Herbert also said Utah has made great strides in increasing education funding and quality. Some of that involved persuading those within his own party to prioritize it.
"We had to change the culture. Education was a priority it seemed like mainly for the Democrat side of the aisle," he said. "We came in and said if you can’t have a good education, you can’t have a good economy. They’re joined at the hip."
While those are some of his successes, the governor said he did not leave office with many regrets.
"We always could have communicated better, more effectively," he said. "Certainly this year was not what I expected for my last year."
Gov. Herbert has led the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout his interview with FOX 13, he defended the state's approach to the virus. He pointed out states that either locked things down too tightly, or not tightly enough.
"We had to adjust quickly and do what we could. By and large, we did what anybody else would have done rationally under the same set of circumstances," he said. "I wish we could have done it a little better, but when you look at where we’re at in the history of this past year? We have one of the lowest death rates in America. Some states have had surges, everybody’s had ups and downs."
The governor told FOX 13 he expects widespread distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine to be to the public by April. It would not be until summer when he expects things to return to "normal." He urged Utahns to continue to limit gatherings ahead of the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Throughout his administration, Gov. Herbert has prided himself as being "right of center philosophically, politically, but I’m moderate in tone and I’m inclusive in process." Indeed, his cabinet has included Democrats and some of his political stances have bucked his own party from time to time.
Most recently, the governor met with Black Lives Matter leaders who are helping to draft policing reforms; he has pushed LGBTQ-friendly legislation and bucked the Trump administration when it came to immigrants and refugees. Asked to explain some of those stances, the governor cited Utah's own history when Mormon pioneers fled persecution and extermination orders in other states.
"They had to flee and they came to this valley to find a lack of persecution and be able to worship as they saw fit. We extend that same privilege to other refugees. We recognize that. We can all do our part," Gov. Herbert said.
Gov. Herbert counts Vice-President Mike Pence among his friends, but asked to provide an assessment about President Trump, the governor said: "I think he’s a personable guy when you’re with him one on one, and he has good charisma. Some of the things and how he approaches things are a little abrasive."
But the governor also defended the president, adding: "He actually had that moxie to go out and shake it up and do some things that needed to be done."
Gov. Herbert said he believed Utah can work with the incoming Biden administration. Asked whether he believed President Trump's decision to shrink Bears Ears National Monument would be reversed by President Joe Biden, Utah's governor hoped for negotiation.
"I would hope there’s more input on what we have with President Biden before they decide to make modifications so we can all get around the table and decide where is the optimal place to be," Gov. Herbert said. "Maybe it’s a combination of what was done there by the Obama administration and what the Trump administration has done and find a place in the middle we can all believe in and empower the Native Americans to have more say."
After he leaves office, Gov. Herbert said he plans to work with Utah Valley University to create a public policy think tank.
"Where can give our young people the opportunity to learn the importance of civic involvement, the history our state, our constitution and our national history. What’s made America great? Free market capitalism works," he said.
He criticized the current movement toward "socialism" and defended capitalism. The governor also decried the polarization of politics, offering some criticism of cable TV for a lack of diverse viewpoints on both the right and left. He offered similar advice to the people of Utah.
"There’s a lot of good that’s happening out there. I would say just stay the course, let’s keep going. Make sure you care about your neighbors. Make sure we don’t get so polarized in our silos politically we cannot have dialogue and discussion," he said.
Asked if he had any advice for his successor, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the governor said he wasn't offering much but noted their approaches to office will be different.
"He’ll bring some youthful enthusiasm. I’m a little older and I have sage wisdom," he chuckled. "But I think he’ll find his own way."