Utahn of the Year: House Speaker Greg Hughes played many lead roles in 2015

Hughes is praised by supporters and slammed by critics, but his hands are firmly on the wheel of key issues Utah faces.

Love me or hate me, just don't be indifferent. — Kirk Douglas

Greg Hughes doesn't have a dimpled chin, but he does have an actor's sway, and he does not inspire indifference in the opinions of Utahns.

Nor does he have a glass jaw. The Utah House speaker is a fighter who seized center stage in major decisions of 2015. He pushed the Utah State Prison from his hometown and legislative district in Draper. He gave Republican lawmakers the cover they craved, at least for now, to kill an alternative to Medicaid expansion and escape the political fallout of aiding and abetting Obamacare — this despite the fact that a majority of their constituents support expanding health care coverage for the poor.

He worked in the shadows to influence the Utah Transit Authority, organizing a Switzerland trip for decision-makers to see firsthand the best mountain rail in the world, this before a debate has even really started about rail construction in our mountains.

You can argue with his style and motivations. The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board certainly has. But you (and we) can't argue with Hughes' effectiveness in Utah's political arena, and his impact borne by seemingly boundless energy and ambition.


Hughes is not merely a figurative fighter. The son of a single mother, he learned on the streets and in the school hallways of Pittsburgh to never back down and always hit back. His pugilistic prowess eventually was channeled into the gymnasium. He still puts on the gloves and climbs into the ring.

The road to Utah and a political life came through a number of chance encounters: LDS Church missionaries knocking on his mother's door. Falling for a young Mormon woman whose family placed a high priority on an LDS mission. (He went on the mission, but he didn't get the girl.)

The most providential moment in Hughes' early political life was meeting Joe Waldholtz, a young Republican from the Steel City who eventually would marry Enid Greene, the first Republican woman elected to Congress from Utah. When revelations surfaced that Waldholtz violated campaign finance laws by funneling almost $2 million from Greene's father into her account, Hughes remained loyal. "He was willing to stand up to anybody who said anything bad about his friends," says Enid Greene Mickelsen about the young stalwart who once yelled at a reporter asking tough questions of the congresswoman.

There is a "Forrest Gump" quality to Hughes' early days in Utah. Besides his eruption at Greene's marathon news conference, he was among the group of BYU students who tackled Cody Judy as he threatened the life of LDS Church President Howard W. Hunter at a Marriott Center fireside. Hughes still has a surgical plate in his hand that was crushed in the scrum.

In 2002, Hughes won the legislative seat of John Swallow, who left to wage an unsuccessful bid for Congress. During the next decade, he would burnish his right-wing credentials as a founder of the Conservative Caucus and take the point as defender and advocate for UTA in the wake of scathing audits and burgeoning public mistrust.

He would be exonerated after an ethics complaint was lodged, alleging he tried to buy another legislator's vote on a bill to create private school vouchers, a conservative cause célèbre in the Legislature.

In explaining his actions, Hughes insists his only mistake was wearing his passion and motives on his sleeve: "I thought brutal honesty was a virtue."

After a year as House speaker, brutal honesty has become Hughes' trademark. He defended the Swiss trip, saying that if he had the wherewithal, he personally would pay to send public officials to Europe. He stonewalled Gov. Gary Herbert's plan for Medicaid expansion, Healthy Utah, by arguing up until the very end of the 2015 session that allowing it to be debated would be a waste of House floor time.

In October, after months of working out a compromise on an alternative to Medicaid expansion, Hughes announced that he would insist on a majority of GOP House members supporting the bill if he were to allow a vote. In closed caucus, expansion died. House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, compared Hughes' actions to those of leaders in the former Soviet Union, North Korea and communist China. "It is at odds with what we, as Americans, believe in."

In May, Hughes witnessed a bloody encounter between a heroin dealer and a homeless man in the Pioneer Park neighborhood. He went on record to say that the state needs to be a player in finding better ways to deal with downtown Salt Lake City's exploding homeless population. While not committing to dollar amounts, he promises the issue will be on the 2016 legislative agenda.

Time will tell if Utah ever provides adequate health care for its poor and opportunity for its homeless. Time will tell if UTA will achieve its full potential to help mitigate our bad air quality and congestion, and be a viable transportation option for Utahns of every income level. Time will tell if, in moving the prison, criminal justice reform is truly achieved, recidivism reduced and rehabilitation realized. And time will tell if valuable Point of the Mountain real estate is really the piece of the puzzle that will cement Utah's position as a hub for information-technology innovation and investment.

Speaker Greg Hughes' hands are on the wheel of every one of these issues. In 2015, he, more than anyone, influenced their destiny.

For that, he is The Salt Lake Tribune's Utahn of the Year.

Terry Orme is The Tribune's editor and publisher. Reach him at orme@sltrib.com. This article drew on reporting from Robert Gehrke, Lee Davidson, Kristen Moulton, Paul Rolly and Christopher Smart.

photo courtesy Greg Hughes

photo courtesy Greg Hughes

photo courtesy Greg Hughes

photo courtesy Greg Hughes

photo courtesy Greg Hughes

photo courtesy Greg Hughes

photo courtesy Greg Hughes

photo courtesy Greg Hughes

photo courtesy Greg Hughes

photo courtesy Greg Hughes

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Speaker of the House, Greg Hughes, R-Draper, makes reference to mailings like this one from The Alliance for a Better Utah, that he called bullying tactics. Hughes was responding to reporter's questions about the House's handling of the Governor's Healthy Utah plan, Thursday, February 26, 2015.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Speaker of the House, Greg Hughes, R-Draper, is seen between a crush of reporters after his media availability in his office, Thursday, February 26, 2015. Hughes responded to reporter's questions about the House's handling of the Governor's Healthy Utah plan.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, calls the House to order to debate the Prison Relocation Commission's recommendation to build a new correctional facility in Salt Lake City before voting to approve it, in Salt Lake City, Wednesday August 19, 2015.