He pulled the 2002 Winter Olympics out of an economic hole, making it a model for future Games around the world. He was speaker of Utah’s House of Representatives during one of his five terms in the Legislature. He currently heads the board that runs Utah’s universities. And he is financial adviser to one of the more controversial figures in Utah politics.
And now, Nolan Karras wants to be governor.
From his working-class childhood in Roy, Karras has made his way to the highest political, financial and corporate circles in Utah.
“My world has been defined by my work ethic,” he said in a recent interview.
Karras is not afraid to look people in the eye and speak his mind. But this soft-spoken workhorse also has a quick wit and a sense of humor as dry as Utah, those who know him say.
“I may not always tell you what you want to hear, but you’ll always know where you stand with me,” his campaign literature proclaims.
Karras, 59, is facing Jon Huntsman Jr., 44, heir to the Huntsman petrochemical fortune, in the Republican primary election on Tuesday. The winner of that race will face Democrat Scott Matheson Jr., Rhodes scholar, dean of the University of Utah law school and son of the popular former governor whose name he bears, in the general election Nov. 2.
Tuesday’s primary pits Karras’s solid Republican substance and experience in the Legislature and in private and public sectors against Huntsman’s personal fortune, foreign service, business position and name recognition.
Both have rejected the description “moderate” and consider themselves conservatives.
In fact, Karras told The Associated Press last month, if you’re going to call him a moderate, you might as well call him a liberal. Neither term applies, he says. He’s conservative to the core.
Nolan Karras was born in Ogden on Dec. 30, 1944, to Orlen and Afton Karras. He is the second of five sons.
“I come from pretty humble roots,” Karras said. His father was a blue-collar worker at the Pillsbury flour mill in Ogden, and his mother, who grew up on a farm, was a school lunch cook. His parents worked hard to raise their family.
“We were taught to work,” he said.
As children, Karras and his siblings were required to do chores every day until noon. His first job was in a grocery store at 16, bagging groceries, stocking shelves and running a checkout counter.
But perhaps he learned to work too well. He does little else these days.
“I have a storage shed full of toys, but little time to use them,” he said.
After graduating from Weber High School in 1963, he headed to Canada on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When he returned, his parents paid for his first quarter of college. After that, he paid his own way by driving a forklift at night.
While in school at Weber State College, he fell for Lynda Purrington, who had been his friend since junior high. Their only date in high school was when she asked him to a girls dance. He seemed like a stable guy, a nice guy who had few critics, she said.
They were married in 1967. Together they brought up three children — Brett, Jodie and Darrin — in Roy, where the family still lives.
Karras earned a bachelor’s degree in finance from Weber State College — renamed Weber State University in 1991. He completed a master of business administration degree at the University of Utah in 1970. He has been a licensed certified public accountant since 1971.
Karras is a master of finance. He has worked with billion-dollar companies and small businesses in the public and private sectors, setting economic policy and tackling issues including budgets, bonds, taxes, investments and long-range financial planning.
But he considers his greatest asset his ability to bring people together.
“I am open minded,” he says. “I have a direct, straightforward style that tends to win people’s confidence.”
Karras works as investment adviser and chief executive officer of Western Hay Co., an Ogden-based company that sells agricultural products. He is also chairman of the Utah board of regents. In addition, he sits on six corporate boards, eight privately held boards and has served on eight other corporate, nonprofit and foundation commissions or boards. He was chief financial officer for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games from 1995 to 2002.
With his busy schedule, about the only time Karras finds to read is on long flights to Scotland for his board meetings at Scottish Power, the parent company of PacifiCorp and Utah Power. His favorites are history books, such as “John Adams,” by David McCullough, and just about anything by Stephen Ambrose, author of “D-Day: June 6, 1944,” and “Undaunted Courage.”
Before moving into corporate board rooms, Karras was a denizen of the Utah Capitol. Elected to the state House in 1980, he didn’t expect to serve more than one term. He served five, including one as House majority leader and one as House speaker. When he stepped down in 1990, he felt he had been there long enough, he said.
“I never thought of myself as a politician, especially not a long-term politician,” he said.
Karras’ involvement in state politics on various levels for many years has left him well-connected in many parts of the state, said Kelly Patterson, chairman of the department of political science at Brigham Young University. Those connections, combined with the respect he has earned along the way, can be useful when it comes time to govern. He would not have lasted in leadership positions without demonstrating real ability to solve problems, Patterson said.
His supporters say he is the most qualified candidate.
No other governor in recent memory had as much experience when elected, said LeRay McAllister, a former state senator from Orem.
“It seems like everything the man has done has prepared him for this job,” said McAllister, who was an accounting professor at Brigham Young University for 30 years.
“And he’s a good, honest man.”
One of Karras’ connections is controversial — at least to a few people.
All three candidates for Utah governor, including Karras, oppose allowing waste more radioactive than what is now permitted for disposal at Envirocare of Utah Inc. But of the three, no one has closer ties to the private, low-level radioactive waste landfill than Karras.
Karras has made no secret of those ties. He serves as financial adviser to Envirocare’s founder Khosrow Semnani; he is a custodian of Semnani’s children’s financial interests; he is a former trustee of the nonprofit Semnani Foundation; and several of his campaign staff members have ties to Envirocare.
But it would be hard to find any politician in Utah without some connection to Envirocare or Semnani, Patterson noted.
Utah Republican Mike Ridgway feels differently.
“Envirocare is the No. 1 corrupting influence in Utah politics,” said Ridgway, a Republican central committee member. He is concerned about elected officials being in positions where they may be torn between personal and public interests.
“A lot of us would prefer to have someone who didn’t have the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Ridgway said.
He also expressed concern that Karras’s running mate, Enid Greene, had not given up her position as vice chairman of the Utah Republican Party before agreeing to be a candidate as required by party rules, Ridgway said.
Greene has taken a leave of absence from the party since she joined the Karras ticket.
“I have not set foot in the office,” she said. Nor has she been involved in any policy discussions.
Karras said that anyone who hasn’t lived in a vacuum and who works for a living will have some conflicts of interest if elected to office. The real question, he said, is not whether people approve of what Envirocare does, but whether people believe he could put his clients’ interests aside if elected governor.
Semnani is a substantial client, Karras said. But he is only one client among hundreds. Many other contractors are also his clients.
Claire Geddes, executive director of Utah Legislative Watch, said she can’t comment on the individual candidates, but allowing “hotter” radioactive waste into the state and appointing waste regulators would require the approval of the governor and Legislature.
“The next governor will be the one who makes these decisions,” Geddes said.
Anyone who has worked with Karras, however, will vouch for his integrity, former state Rep. Chris Finlinson said. She served in the state House from 1988 through 1999, starting when Karras was majority leader and then speaker.
“His integrity is impeccable,” she said. She also was struck by his financial skills and his ability to help others understand complex issues.
Karras said if elected governor, he would sever all ties with Envirocare and his other business clients to avoid any conflicts of interest.
“I think I have a record of putting the state’s interests ahead of my own,” he said.
He cites his role as chief financial officer for the Olympics. When he accepted then-Gov. Mike Leavitt’s appointment, he put his professional reputation on the line, he said. Had that turned out to be a financial disaster, Karras would have been infamous instead of keeping his low-profile.
He admits to being a pain in the neck about budget details, but eventually he changed the Olympic organizing committee’s attitude toward costs. He taught the committee to link planning to the budget to accurately detail costs.
“If you can’t sort out the costs, you can’t manage them,” he said.
When he started on the organizing committee, members were served catered lunches during meetings. Before Karras was through, members were buying their own soft drinks and chipping in for pizza during long meetings, he said.
The result of his influence was that the Olympics finished in the black — a rare event in Olympics history. He would apply the same accounting principles to the state’s budget woes, a process he calls kitchen-table accountability for its similarity to a family working out finances around the kitchen table.
Many of the state’s problems today are based in economics, such as borrowing against the future instead of planning for it, he says.
Karras wants to run for governor because he thinks he can help the state clean its economic house. He has thought about running for public office — governor or Congress — in the past, but things didn’t work out for several political, professional or personal reasons.
“The timing is simply better for me now,” he said. His wife, Lynda, agreed that if he’s going to do it, “now’s the time.” The decision to run was one they made together, she said.
But Karras never actually planned to run for governor. In fact, it took some encouragement, most notably from Norm Bangerter, who served as Utah governor from 1985 to 1993 and is now the Karras campaign’s chairman. The two met when Karras was elected to the House in 1981 while Bangerter was speaker of the House.
“He’s real,” Bangerter said. “There’s nothing phony about him.”
The two didn’t always agree on everything, Bangerter said. But the former governor never questioned Karras’ motives. Karras is persuasive and knows how to hold his ground, Bangerter said.
Karras is a hard man to fool. He has made his own way and built a strong business. For many years he was involved on Capitol Hill, but he never championed an issue. The boards on which he has served speak volumes about his abilities, Bangerter said.
“He has the best preparation of any governor candidates,” he said. “And that includes me.”
Karras said he picked a reluctant Enid Greene as his running mate because she brings some name recognition, as well as gender and geographic balance. She’s from Salt Lake City; Karras is from Weber County.
He also chose Greene for her abilities.
“She’s probably the smartest political talent I’ve known,” Karras said. “She’s an attorney; I’m an accountant. She brings a complement to me.”
His experience is in finance and state government; hers is in the law and federal issues. Greene holds a law degree from Brigham Young University and brings the perspective of a single mother.
She also brings controversy. People outside Salt Lake City and the inner circles of the Republican Party may remember her only for a 1995 campaign finance brouhaha. She stepped down from a seat in the U.S. House after one term as a result of illegal financing arranged by her former husband, Joe Waldholtz.
She was not convicted of any crime but eventually shared a $100,000 civil penalty with her father and her campaign committees for finance violations.
After stepping down from Congress, Green remained active in the Utah Republican Party, but she had no intention of running for public office, she said.
Then she met Karras, the candidate.
She declined when first approached. But Bangerter convinced her to at least talk to Karras. That’s all it took, she said.
“I got the most honest, complex and thought-out responses to policy issues,” Greene said. He offered no platitudes or sound bites. She was so impressed with him that she agreed to run for public office again.
“I don’t think we’ve had a better candidate for governor for decades,” Greene said.
N.S. Nokkentved can be reached at 344-2930 or at email@example.com.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A1.