A Tale of Two Huntsmans
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

One is a hard-charging emotional businessman who created an empire. The other is a diplomat and policy wonk who avoids political tussles.

One backs Mitt Romney. The other, Sen. John McCain.

They are father and son in one of the most powerful - and prominent - families in Utah.

Billionaire industrialist Jon Huntsman Sr. and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. have a few differences, but for the most part they are as close as any father and son can be. They call each other "best friend." They talk every other day about their families, the chemical company and politics.

They say their conversations haven't changed since Huntsman Jr. became the state's chief executive. (''I have him call me governor now," says the son. Really? "No.") Though they do remain wary about how the public may perceive their tight bond.

Huntsman supporters heard the whispers during the campaign that Junior was trying to fulfill his father's own political dreams. Since winning, they worry about perceptions that the governor is simply his powerful father's puppet.

Huntsman Sr. purposefully has maintained a low profile to ward off such criticisms and to let his son succeed or fail on his own - but good poll numbers have lessened their concerns.

Huntsman Jr. is one of the most popular governors in the nation and that has made Huntsman Sr. more comfortable, according to Peter Huntsman, the governor's younger brother.

"Father kind of feels he can now be a little more vocal on issues near and dear to him," said Peter Huntsman, CEO of Huntsman Corp.

So far that means the presidential campaign and state support for cancer research and treatment. Still, the father rarely talks to reporters and is reticent to make too many public appearances.

"I don't ever try to make news to compete with Jon Jr.," he said.

Huntsman Jr. has also become a little more comfortable. In press releases, he has dropped the "Junior," instead going for what he describes as the less formal "Jon Huntsman."

And he also doesn't shy away from saying he talks to his father about the issues of the day.

"There is nothing today that I refrain from talking to him about," Huntsman Jr. said. "And there is certainly nothing that he refrains from talking about."

The governor calls his father "a sounding board," but says he never gets second-guessed.

"Once I've made a decision on something, he will always be extremely supportive of what I've done, which I appreciate," Huntsman Jr. said.

Casting a long shadow

Before he was known publicly as Huntsman Sr., Jon M. Huntsman had his own political life. He worked for President Nixon, leaving before the Watergate scandal. Huntsman even toyed with his own run for governor in 1988. His campaign only lasted three weeks.

The Huntsman Corporation headquarters in the foothills of Salt Lake City are covered with pictures of Huntsman and presidents, such as Reagan and Bush, along with scores of foreign leaders. Jon Jr., known as Jonny to many family members, appears in quite a few.

"The family observed up close and personal my service in the federal government and it obviously developed in them a keen interest in serving," Huntsman Sr. said.

He left government and created a chemical company that took off with the creation of Styrofoam packaging for hamburgers and eggs and has since diversified into all sorts of plastics and compounds used in hundreds of products.

Huntsman's philanthropy only expanded his prominence; the family name is tied to a special events center, senior games, teaching awards and a cancer institute.

As his children became adults, Huntsman Sr. placed them in prominent roles within the company. Huntsman Jr. held a few corporate positions, but his real skill has been in foreign relations.

Huntsman Sr. said he never helped his son get an appointed position, but former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, family friend and former Huntsman Corp. employee, did. With this assistance, Huntsman Jr. worked for President Reagan before becoming an ambassador and a deputy U.S. trade representative.

During a visit to Washington, D.C., Huntsman Sr. first learned of his son's desire to become Utah's governor and he was "genuinely pleased."

The race

The Huntsman campaign initially had its offices in the expansive but mostly vacant Huntsman Corp. headquarters, but moved out before voters' attention intensified with the approaching election. The son didn't want his father playing a prominent role.

"Jon Jr. was very ultra-sensitive to that and knew that would be a real negative in the eyes of voters," said Jason Chaffetz, the campaign manager.

That doesn't mean the father sat on the sidelines during the 2004 campaign.

Huntsman Sr. interviewed Chaffetz briefly before his son hired him. The campaign met with "the chairman" about once a month, and he helped with some out-of-state fundraisers.

Huntsman Sr. describes his role as being a mentor and his son's lead cheerleader. He attended all of the debates, usually finding a seat in the back row.

His son capitalized on the family name, staffers say, but at times it also gave his opponents an area to attack.

The vice president of the Davis County Republican Women created a Web site that labeled Huntsman Jr. as "Prince Jon" the "would-be master . . . of Utah serfs." The site even had pictures of him wearing a jauntily tilted crown.

Huntsman Jr. said during the campaign that his family name made it more difficult to run at times because people would try to see if he was "worthy" or just "an interloper."

"I think the skeptics were predisposed to think that he was going to be a daddy's boy," Chaffetz said. "It became evident that that wasn't the case."

After being elected, his father walked into the governor's office only once, just to see what it looked like.

"He made a very concerted effort to not be involved in the office of the governor," said Chaffetz, who also served as Huntsman's first chief of staff.

But in the past year, state business and his father's cancer philanthropy have intersected.

Re-emergence

The governor refused to get involved in a legislative debate over whether to give state money to the Huntsman Cancer Institute earlier this year.

The institute is a state organization at the University of Utah, but it was built with his father's money, and his father was leading the lobbying efforts. Huntsman Sr. walked lawmakers through the building and urged them to give money. But when those same lawmakers asked the governor about it, Huntsman Jr. deflected the questions.

"I wanted to make sure from an outside perspective that I was at a safe and careful distance from it," he said, hoping to avoid the perception of conflict.

The Legislature gave the institute millions and the governor signed the budget.

Later that session, lawmakers rejected a proposal to spend $1 million on a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. Huntsman Sr. stepped in and gave the money without talking to his son.

"I knew that it was my responsibility to do something about it," he said. "It didn't matter who was the governor."

The two have disagreed publicly only once since Jon Jr. became governor, and that is on presidential candidates.

The father is raising money for Romney, a Mormon and former Massachusetts governor who also led the Olympic organizing committee in Salt Lake City. Huntsman Sr. helped Romney's father run for president in the late '60s.

"It would be very, very difficult for me not to support a man I have loved and respected like Mitt over the years," he said.

His son is aligned with McCain from Arizona, saying he likes McCain's stance on Iraq and leadership style.

The two disagreed on candidates in 2000 as well, but this time it has garnered much more attention. They joke about it often and occasionally get into a debate about the merits of their two favorite candidates, but it has not caused any friction, Huntsman Jr. said.

"Whenever it stands in the way of familial relationships, that's when politics becomes too dangerous and you start to back away," he said.

Lonely posts

Peter Huntsman watches the relationship from afar. He is the CEO of the chemical giant that is based in Texas. He perceives his father as a "hard charging," first generation entrepreneur and his brother as a more academic observer of politics.

While different in personality, Huntsman Jr. said the two are very close on political philosophy.

All three constantly converse, in part because of the "lonely" positions they hold.

Peter Huntsman said his relationship with his brother has grown much tighter since he became CEO, and Jon Jr. became governor.

The Huntsmans are not the first Utah family that had to think about public perceptions of their interactions.

Consider the Wilsons.

Ted Wilson used to be Salt Lake City mayor and was the Democratic candidate for governor in 1988. His daughter Jenny is now a Salt Lake County Council member and candidate for Salt Lake City mayor.

They have taken a different approach from the Huntsmans.

"I am proud to say that I advise my daughter," Ted Wilson said. "I think she wants people to know I support her." Maybe the Huntsmans are more concerned because they represent business and politics intermingling, when in his family it is just politics, Wilson said. "Or maybe they are more modest than we are."

But Ted Wilson hopes the governor is talking to his father about the major issues of the day.

"I would feel great about Jon Jr. consulting his dad on issues," he said.

Another big difference is the money. Huntsman Jr. has constantly battled "silver spoon" barbs, and during the campaign even contemplated making silver spoon pins to lampoon the critics.

"The silver spoon concept was never one that he was raised with," Huntsman Sr. said. "I think his roots are very deeply embedded in his childhood years."

Huntsman Jr., who was a teen when his father made his first millions, tries to portray a common-man image.

"I want people to see me for who I am," the governor said. "And I didn't grow up in a wealthy family."

But it is hard to disassociate the Huntsman name and its fortune. Huntsman Jr. asks people to look past his family money and his father's connections.

"You do a disservice by seeing me through one lens as opposed to who I am," he said.

mcanham@sltrib.com

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and his father, Huntsman Sr., maintain their tight bond despite worries over public perception. They talk often about politics, business and the family.

When a Tribune reporter asked Jon Huntsman Sr. if his relationship with his son has changed, he pulled out a notecard and read this: "My relationship with my son Jon Jr. has been sustained over time by a mutual love and respect. We have always enjoyed a very close and treasured association from his boyhood days through the present time. Our personal bond has been strengthened over the years notwithstanding our participation or service in a variety of responsible positions, including Jon Jr.'s current term as governor of Utah. I continue to serve as chairman of Huntsman Corporation, as well as donating service on other national boards. Our family continues to support a multitude of charitable causes, including cancer, that we have embraced for many years. We will continue to do that."