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Gov. Gary Herbert once again has locked up the endorsement of the Utah Public Employees Association, an 8,000-member organization that represents state and local government employees.

Herbert won the backing of the group when he ran for governor in 2010, and now has won the endorsements of the UPEA, as well as the Utah Education Association, the state's largest teacher union.

"It was a tough decision," said UPEA Executive Director Audry Wood, noting that the Democratic candidate, Peter Cooke, has a strong record of leadership. "But Governor Herbert has a track record with the employees, and he's been there for us on some key issues."

Wood cited Herbert's effort to maintain the state's four-day workweek, which was reversed by the Legislature, his fighting for a 1 percent pay increase last session and his maintaining employee benefits.

"In Utah, we are very fortunate to have dedicated public employees who work hard for their fellow citizens," Herbert said in a statement. "We work to minimize the tax burden on our citizens, and we are successful in large part because of the great men and women who give us a great bang for our buck."

Cooke, a retired two-star general, said he found the endorsement startling, but, as with the UEA nod, he is receiving strong support from rank-and-file members.

"This comes as a great surprise," said Cooke, who added there was concern expressed during his UPEA interview about the wrongful firing of Utah Department of Transportation employee Denice Graham, an ongoing audit of the Department of Workforce Services and other issues.

"It doesn't change what I'm sensing from people who really work [for the state]. The morale, from what I've been told by state employees, is quite low," Cooke said. "I think the record of the present administration speaks for itself, but I think incumbency has its advantages."

Wood said that, during the interviews, Herbert committed to defending the public employees' ability to have their association dues deducted from their paychecks and maintaining the process for workers to file grievances over mistreatment or firings they think are unjustified — a response to a question about Graham's case.

The endorsement, Wood said, is an expression of the board's views. Its uncertain if the UPEA political action committee will contribute to Herbert's campaign.

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

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