Jon Huntsman 2012: Legacy Of Charity Efforts May Be Liability In GOP Presidential Race

This article is part of a series in which HuffPost is taking a close look at the charitable giving of Republican presidential candidates. How much and to whom did they give? How does their giving compare with their fellow Americans? And what impact did they ultimately have?

WASHINGTON -- Maybe Jon Huntsman is just too nice of a guy to compete with someone who would strap his dog to the roof of his car or someone who would make firefighters buy their own gear.

At least, that's the feeling you get if you talk to people who have seen the charity of the former Utah governor and his wife, Mary Kaye.

"They are wonderful humanitarians," said Pamela Atkinson, a near-legendary champion of the poor in Utah who advised Huntsman on charity while he was governor and has known him for two decades. "They're people I know I can always turn to."

Huntsman does not talk much about his charity, there are few news stories about it and his campaign declined to make his tax returns available for this series. But a review of available public data and interviews suggest he is generous.

His father, the billionaire chemical company founder Jon Huntsman, Sr., is among the most charitable people in the country, estimated to have given away some $1.2 billion. A large part of that has gone to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah, where Jon Jr. served as president and CEO.

Asked recently if his dad's largess would extend to Huntsman's White House campaign, he didn't say yes or no, but suggested things like the Cancer Institute would always come first, and the political cash would have to come from elsewhere.

"We’re going to get out and raise the money," Huntsman said on Hugh Hewitt's radio show.

"Any family money there is goes to charity," he said. "We didn’t come into this world with anything, and don’t expect to leave with anything. And if the good Lord gives you something along the way by way of whatever you’ve done in the free market, then it’s our philosophy that you turn around and plow it back in and try to make people’s lives a little bit better."

As far as giving directly, Huntsman does not have the same personal wealth as his father, although he has plenty -- between $15 million and $66 million, according to his latest personal financial disclosure filing. And he has staked his campaign to up to $2 million in loans.

But he also appears to be extremely generous. While his campaign did not disclose dollar figures, it said much of Huntsman's giving went to his wife's charity, Power in You, which aids at-risk youth. He also gave to the House of Hope shelter and substance abuse treatment facility; the Salt Lake City Homeless Shelter; the Bag of Hope, a juvenile diabetes research foundation; the Mormon Church; the Washington National Cathedral in D.C. and the orphanages from which he adopted daughters Gracie Mei and Asha.

Atkinson said the Huntsmans are not comfortable talking about their giving, and often prefer to help people directly.

She recalled how they've become annual fixtures for more than a decade at a Salvation Army dinner she runs for the homeless every year around Christmas.

At one event about 13 years ago, before Huntsman ran for governor, Atkinson said he brought along his daughter Gracie Mei, newly adopted from China.

"He brought Gracie down in a support, where he carried her on his front while he was serving dinner," Atkinson said. "That was very meaningful for many of the homeless people who were there, who saw it as a symbol of Christmas -- this baby who had been found in a village in the market and now had a home."

Huntsman himself is fond of giving back by hopping on a Harley. "He's really such an enthusiastic motorbike person, and he loves to go on rides," said Atkinson. "If it's a fundraiser for any particular event, he would go on a ride, long before he became a governor."

She also said the couple often preferred the direct -- often anonymous -- approach to charity, simply helping out a person, family or cause, without the attendant tax break available from more formal giving.

"There were times when they wanted to help a particular family, a women who was being abused or what have you," Atkinson said. "Rather than give people money, they would sometimes give me the money, and I would be able to help people."

In one case, they gathered up their own warm clothing to give to a family of Somali refugees about five years ago, and got friends to do the same, Atkinson said.

"As long as they knew their money was going to be used very judiciously, as long as they know their money was going to make a difference in people's lives, they were very, very generous," she said.

Reed Cowan, a former Salt Lake City television anchor, has a close-up perspective on the Huntsmans' charitable side.

Cowan worked closely with Mary Kaye Huntsman on Power in You. Before the charity's big gala several years ago, he decided that he had to come out and let the Huntsmans know he was gay. He didn't want to embarrass them, though, so he quit the group -- only to have them demand that he stay and then publicly embrace him at the gala.

A few days later, Cowan's young son, Wesley, died in a freak accident on the monkey bars at his ex-wife's home. Cowan said that the Huntsmans not only where there for him, but pushed him to make something good come out of it.

That good was an effort to build Wesley Cowan schools for children in Kenya. The Huntsmans' help, Cowan said, ensured that it succeeded and continues now.

"We would not have opened the first of now many Wesley Cowan schools in Kenya and we would not have had the momentum we experienced," Cowan said, also crediting the Salt Lake City Jewish Community Center.

If none of that was enough, Cowan turned to the Huntsmans recently when his sister was diagnosed with cancer.

"In the terror of the diagnosis, I emailed [Mary Kaye Huntsman] and Jon and said 'I know you are in China ... and I hope the sun is up where you are ... I need my sister to get the best cancer care in the world ... I hope you get this,'" Cowan said by email. "Within minutes MKH and Jon and Jon Sr.'s family were in action and my sister was in the Huntsman Cancer Institute getting the best care."

"In fact, it was because of their extensive research -- that my sister was SPARED a year of chemo therapy and a radical mastectomy -- as the Huntsman Institute found that she was NOT a cancer victim, but rather had Kikuchi Fujimoto Syndrome," he wrote.

While Cowan also was unable to place any figures on the Huntsmans' generosity, he wasn't sure it was necessary, or that they want credit.

"Having been in their proximity now for close to ten years, I can tell you they help people anonymously all the time, and their charitable work is the hallmark of who they are," he said. "It crosses culture, race, religion, sexual identity, gender, etc."

"I've seen it time after time and up close," Cowan said.

Huntsman's charitable impulses don't seem to be much of an asset to his White House bid, however, as he polls in the range of 1 to 2 percent nationally. In fact, Huntsman has gotten crosswise to parts of the conservative Republican base after his interaction with people like Cowan -- whom some credit with inspiring Huntsman's embracing of same-sex civil unions.

Still, Huntsman is sticking with that position, and people like Atkinson and Cowan are sure his charity will stand, as well.

For Part 1 on Texas Gov. Rick Perry's charitable giving, click here. For Part 2 on Mitt Romney, click here. For Part 3 on Michele Bachmann, click here. For Part 4 on Herman Cain, click here.

2012 Presidential Candidates: How Charitable Are They?