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Sen. Ralph Okerlund in a committee meeting, when his health started failing.

 

Ralph Okerlund reflects on political

career spanning more than 30 years

 

By Rhett Wilkinson

Staff writer

8-13-2020

 

 

MONROE—It’s been an unusual offseason for retiring Senator Ralph Okerlund.

Because of COVID-19, the Utah Legislature is doing work it’s never done before, forcing the Utah Senate Majority Leader to attend “a lot of special meetings.”

Okerlund has been keeping real busy; and he said, “I’m still a senator so I vote on all the issues.”

He said “still” because he is retiring after 36 years as an elected official.

Okerlund has less than five more months to go; the cutoff date for him to be a legislator is December 31.

Okerlund said that being in office for three dozen years is a “long time to be in office.” In fact, his length of time as a legislator (12 years) is one of two main reasons why he is not running again.

“I’ve been in 12 years. That’s quite a while and I’m not a strict term limits guy, but 12 years is quite enough,” Okerlund said, noting that he decided to not run two years ago.

“It’s a timing issue,” he said, stating that 36 years in elected positions is “a long time to do public service.”

Okerlund’s thought is “let somebody else take over and hopefully things will go well.”

Also, Okerlund’s heart and kidney transplants in May 2018 (after nearly two years of wearing a Left Ventricular Assist Device, a battery pack) “slowed him down a little bit.”

“Those are probably the two main ones: my health and just the fact that 12 years is a long time,” Okerlund said. He has been in Utah Senate leadership for eight years.

In that capacity, “you do a lot of additional budget items and make decisions on how bills are prioritized,” he said, noting that it requires a lot of late-night and early-morning meetings.

“I decided that was probably enough for me at that point,” Okerlund said.

He is most looking forward in retirement to be able to just take off and go watch his grandkids. He and his wife Cindy have 10 of them. They’re all involved in sports and stuff.

Okerlund’s district is so large – at least a third of the state – that his time has been especially taxed by being a legislator.

Okerlund grew up in Monroe and went to high school there. He got an associate’s degree from Dixie College, where he played baseball on a scholarship, before attending the University of Utah, where he got a bachelor’s degree in political science and minors in English and philosophy. He planned to attend law school; he had taken the LSAT and been recruited by a school.

However, his father got injured in a family accident, so Okerlund returned to Monroe to help his father run the farm.

Okerlund ended up staying home.

“It seemed that everything worked out the way it should,” he said. “If I had gone to law school, I would have needed to leave the area.”

Okerlund could have gone to Chicago, to Northwestern University.

Instead, he was able to be close to his father—and a pattern of family being close has since developed. Family is within a mile. “Grandkids come running in any time we are home,” Okerlund said.

“[It’s] been a real blessing to us to have everybody close,” he said.

While his father passed away 25 years ago, his mother lives only a block away.

Okerlund noted that he was still able to be involved in politics and “policy development” de

Sen. Ralph Okerlund with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the Utah Republican nominee for governor.

spite not going to law school.

“So it seems like it worked out right,” he said.

Okerlund taught school for five years at South Sevier High School and then bought his father’s dairy later, in advance of being a dairyman for 25 years.

Okerlund sold the dairy about 20 years ago, but kept up the farm he bought.

During that time, some of the “city fathers,”— “movers and shakers in the community,” as Okerlund called them—asked him to run for Monroe City Council.

“’You are young and enthusiastic,’” Okerlund reported them saying.

Okerlund said he was busy, but he was told that it wouldn’t take too much time.

So Okerlund ran for city council, won, and was on the government body for one-and-a-half terms. The first term that he ran for was a two-year term because of somebody resigning and not running again.

Then the mayor decided to go on a Latter-day Saint mission and Okerlund was appointed as the mayor. He then ran for another term as mayor.

Then Okerlund “ended up” being a Sevier County commissioner, he said.

The county sheriff and county attorney approached him about running.

Once again, Okerlund was told it is “not a lot of time.”

“They fooled me,” Okerlund said.

Okerlund served as a county commissioner for 13 years. He got involved with many state legislators. He was president of the Utah State Association of Commissioners and Councilmen, where he did a lot of work for legislators. He was also president of the Utah Association of Counties, while serving as a commissioner.

“People said, ‘Why don’t you run for the state legislature?’” Okerlund reported.

On a couple of occasions, Okerlund could have run for the Utah House, but he was committed to not running every two years.

Okerlund ran for the state senate seat once it opened up.

He still has his farm. His son-in-law is running it.

“I just get to kind of run around and boss a bit,” Okerlund said, saying he can bark out “this looks good” or “doing great.”

“That’s my job with the farm,” Okerlund said.

While has was farming in earlier years, he worked for Jones & DeMille Engineering for around 10 years. He did project development and funding for projects in the area for the company.

Okerlund was then hired to be the first executive director of the Six County Infrastructure Coalition at the time. (Right at the time when he resigned from that job because he knew he would be getting a transplant, it became the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, with Sevier County added.)

Regarding the heart and kidney transplant, after the 18-hour procedure of the heart transplant, the first thing Okerlund did upon waking up was reach for his LVAD.

“’Whoa! Where’s my battery?’” he remembered saying.

“I had been attached to it for so long,” Okerlund said. He wore it for nearly two years.

Further, Okerlund said “I’m two-and-a-half years out and everything is going really well. … my kidney and heart are probably the best things I have got on my body now.”

“I’m doing really well. Considering. I’m an old man with used parts,” he said.

(Those parts came from a 47-year-old man.)

Doctors have him on a lot of anti-rejection medication that Okerlund will take the rest of his life, he said.

But it’s a major improvement given that Okerlund was carried from the Utah Capitol on a stretcher in March 2014.

He is most proud from his career in public service, including his time in the Legislature, to “bring rural issues more to the forefront and get the state involved in rural issues,” he said. (At the state level, there are very few rural legislators because of the population of Utah, Okerlund said.)

He recalled running an infrastructure bill a handful of years ago that has made it so that there are billions of dollars of investment in the state. The development director for the Utah Governor’s Office of Energy Development caught Okerlund and asked if he had seen what has happened as a result of the bill, which provides tax credits for companies to come and put infrastructure in.

“He told me … billions of dollars have been created as a result of that,” Okerlund said, noting that jobs have been created by the legislation as well.

Besides the energy office, the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development is involved with his bill.

“That’s one of many,” Okerlund said.

He said it has been a “real honor” to hold each of the elected positions in which he has served, noting that in the 12 years as a legislator, Okerlund has had the “honor” of being able to work with different folks across a 10-county district. He said that he has been able to help each county with some bills, financial requests and appropriations requests.

Okerlund has also helped prioritize funding for Snow College. He assisted with the appropriation that led to Snow being able to get a new building and ran an appropriations request just two years ago that allowed Snow instructors to receive better pay.

Because Snow College is so small in comparison to other institutions, it was hard to be able to pay the instructors compared to what other colleges have been able to pay their instructors, Okerlund said.

“I was able to get them up to where they were competitive,” he said. “That was fun.”

Okerlund talked fondly of working with former Snow College president Gary Carlston. He considers him a “good friend.”

“It was fun to work with him a lot,” Okerlund said.

“I think I’ve been able to do some really good things for the college,” Okerlund said.

Okerlund described his time in legislative leadership as “a real honor and privilege” but noted that it’s “a lot of work.”

There are extra meetings. You work as a majority leader with each caucus. Okerlund helped the Republican caucus with each member’s bills. He also served on the executive appropriations committee and made decisions that affect the entire state.

“I enjoyed that time I was able to spend that time on leadership,” Okerlund said, saying it was a “privilege to be able to do that.”

Senate President Stuart Adams asked Okerlund to serve as president pro tem. It meant that he didn’t have to engage in “all the budget battles” but could take Adams’ position on the days when he had to be off the Senate floor. Okerlund has also not had to “be involved in every meeting” but be asked his thoughts about “sticky” issues.

“It’s really kind of an appointment that is not a big job,” Okerlund said.

He said he really enjoyed being able to travel and visit with folks in his “big” district.

Further, as president pro tem, he has been involved in meetings dealing with national issues, in which he has represented the Utah state senate.

Another job he was elected to is president of Council of State Governments Western Association. It was an “interesting” group, Okerlund said, because it included California and Washington, left-leaning states, in contrast to right-leaning Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Arizona. That group had to be created “on a non-partisan basis,” Okerlund said.

“[We] try to not have it be Democrats vs. Republicans,” he said, saying members were “developing policy as far is what is good for the region without worrying about partisan issues.”

Okerlund called it a “fun assignment” that “not many people in Utah have had.”

He has also served as co-chair of the redistricting committee. Society is going through redistricting again, as the U.S. Census is being done and those in charge of redistricting are preparing for it again. “[It’s] a blessing for me to not to have to go through that again,” Okerlund said.

Okerlund was president pro tem for two years. After he decided to run for leadership, Adams was elected as the Senate President and asked Okerlund to be president pro tem.

Okerlund said it is a “real honor” to represent a district that is at least one-third of the entire state. It was likewise a “real honor,” he said, to have served in leadership as long as he did and for his abilities to be respected enough for him to be elected to leadership.

Serving in leadership was “kind of a destiny” for Okerlund, he said.

“I think that it was something that I was destined to do. And each of these positions have led me to maybe have the ability and the destiny to fulfill,” he said. “My life has been what it should have been.”

Pointing out that he is only 68 year old, Okerlund said “[I am] not sure I am going to retire totally.

“These things kind of come my way,” he said of political opportunities. “Maybe there is something in front of me that I still have to do.”

Still, “one thing’s for sure,” Okerlund said, and that is that he will have “more time at home with the kids.”

“That’s something I’m really looking forward to,” Okerlund said.

Sen. Ralph Okerlund in a committee meeting, when his health started failing.