Associated Press Writer
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Nearly three months after Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert learned he would become governor, the Republican has yet to stake out positions on a host of gay rights issues supported by the departing and highly popular Gov. Jon Huntsman that he serves with.
The silence comes as this heavily Mormon state draws increasing amounts of unwanted attention for how gays and lesbians are treated here and Herbert plots a political course he hopes will keep him in the governor's mansion after next year.
Herbert is expected to be sworn in as governor in the coming weeks, once Huntsman, also a Republican, is confirmed by the U.S. Senate as ambassador to China.
Utah has become a focal point for gay rights issues because it is home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members spent heavily to influence a California election banning gay marriage there. The church also recently detained two gay men for kissing on a downtown church-owned plaza that spawned nationwide "kiss-in" protests.
About 60 percent of the state's population is Mormon, as are Herbert, Huntsman and more than 80 percent of legislators.
Huntsman rocketed to national prominence earlier this year for saying he supported civil unions, although he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Huntsman's comments on civil unions came as conservative lawmakers killed a package of bills known as the Common Ground Initiative that Huntsman backed. The initiative would have extended some rights to gay couples, such as hospital visitation rights and the right to sue in the event of a wrongful death. The package is expected to come before lawmakers again in January.
While Huntsman spoke openly about gay rights issues, Herbert has remained largely silent.
"It's premature for him to say what position he will take on these bills," said Jason Perry, Herbert's transition director. "We don't know what will be in those. He will keep a very open mind as he hears what the issues are."
One of Herbert's few public comments on the Common Ground Initiative came during a May news conference about the transition to power.
In response to a question about whether it should be legal to fire someone for being gay, as it is now in Utah, Herbert said, "I support Amendment 3, and I'm going to let that be my statement on the issue."
However, gay rights advocates note that Amendment 3, a ban on gay marriages and domestic unions approved by voters in 2004, doesn't address the issue of whether employees can be fired for being gay.
"He talked about how he supported Amendment 3, but the Common Ground Initiative is all about addressing the issues apart from marriage that impact our community every day," said Will Carlson, public policy director for Equality Utah, which launched the Common Ground Initiative.
Herbert has said his top goal will be economic development as the state battles a rising unemployment rate that hit 5.7 percent in June.
Bruce Bastian, a gay Utahn who made millions as founder of WordPerfect, said he hopes Herbert realizes Utah's economy suffers with discriminatory laws, citing a UCLA Law School study by the Williams Institute that said Massachusetts attracted young, highly educated workers to the state after legalizing gay marriage.
"Gov. Huntsman was really smart. He saw it, he understood it. He knew that to attract younger people, especially the creative people, (Utah's) got to be seen as a welcoming, open society," he said. "Not only are there young highly skilled professionals that won't come to the state, there are young highly skilled professionals that will leave the state."
Perry, who is also the state's economic development director, disputes that.
"We have not seen that as being a recruitment problem in any way," he said.
In remaining coy about gay rights, Herbert is taking a page out of Huntsman's playbook. Huntsman rarely commented on bills until he signed them into law and his public support for the Common Ground Initiative didn't come until it was all but doomed at the Capitol.
Huntsman also didn't make his beliefs on civil unions known until after he won a second term in November and had pledged not to seek a third term.
By waiting, Huntsman avoided the wrath of ultraconservative delegates who pick the party's nominees and aren't afraid to kick out a popular governor.
Those are the same delegates Herbert will need to woo this spring when he seeks the party's nomination for a special gubernatorial election in 2010.
Melvin Nimer, president of the Utah Log Cabin Republicans, a political group for gay, lesbian and Transgender conservatives, said he isn't worried what might happen to gay rights issue in a Herbert administration.
Nimer nabbed one of the first meetings with Herbert once it was made public Huntsman had been nominated as ambassador to China.
"He knows of our strong relationship with Gov. Huntsman and told us he wants to keep that relationship at least as good, if not better, than we had with Gov. Huntsman," Nimer said. "He needs to know that we are working to build a much stronger force as far as having some say (at the party convention.)"
On the Net: Equality Utah www.equalityutah.org
Utah Log Cabin Republicans www.logcabinutah.org
Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert http://www.utah.gov/ltgovernor/
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)