House Speaker Greg Hughes won’t seek re-election, but says he’s no ‘lame duck’

A possible candidate for governor, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes says he’ll leave the Legislature at the end of his term

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Greg Hughes announces that he will not run for re-election next year, during a media conference in Midvale, Wednesday, January 10, 2018.

House Speaker Greg Hughes announced Wednesday that he will not seek re-election as speaker nor for his House seat — but opened up the possibility that he may run in the future for governor or Congress or even serve in the Trump administration.

However, the Draper Republican said he doesn’t want to “start measuring for drapes [for another office] while I am on the clock. I have a job to do.”

He added, “There’s a lot of heavy lifting in front of us in this coming session” that “requires our absolute focus. I don’t want to distract from that,” nor have his future plans become part of calculations by others about whether to support bills.

Hughes broke the news to Republican House colleagues meeting in an all-day caucus to plan the legislative session, which begins Jan. 22, and spoke later in the day to the news media to explain his decision.

“We’ve had one House speaker who served three terms. It’s only happened once,” said Hughes, who is beginning the final year of his second term as speaker and his 16th year in the House overall — which he added is longer than he ever planned to serve.

“I believe that two terms is a strong time to serve your colleagues. I think our leadership in the Legislature is deep,” he said, so he decided to let House members know he will leave the Legislature after this year.

But he warns that if some think that “I’m a lame duck, they will find a wounded wolf. I will work very hard. I am not limping out of public service. I’m not leaving with my tail between my legs. … We have a body of lawmakers who know how to get difficult things accomplished.”

He said that includes addressing challenges that come from booming population growth, including finding ways to fund needed transportation, schools, water systems and more.

He added that leaving the House will not end his involvement in politics.

“I love the arena. I love public policy, and I love being involved,” he said. “ … I do leave open the prospect of being involved in some way in the future,.”

He said serving in Utah — perhaps as governor — allows working from idea to solution in a collaborative way, while working in Congress more rarely allows that. “Washington has its challenges … and I do enjoy state policymaking.”

“I doubt very highly that he is finished with politics,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

“Any time there is a high-profile political position available, Greg Hughes is on that list. And we have some big opportunities coming. He could decide to run for the [U.S.] House, but most speculation is on him being most interested in running for governor” in 2020, Perry said.

“Greg Hughes does not make political decisions without a strategy. That is one thing he has proven time and time again.”

Hughes was one of the earliest supporters in Utah of President Donald Trump — who even called Hughes “the original” supporter here during a recent visit. Hughes hinted possibilities may exist to serve in the Trump administration.

“There has been no offer,” he said. “But there is a great line of communication there that has been exciting.”

He praised Trump. “He has been doing a great job,” he said. “I think you’re getting a very authentic leader who’s giving you his best.”

One office Hughes will not seek is the Senate seat of Orrin Hatch. He said he supports Mitt Romney for that. “We’ve all been proud of the voice and the tone and the leadership that has been demonstrated by Governor Romney, and I think that he is loved here in the state.”

But he also said that Romney should stop criticism of Trump that he argued amounts to forming a “circular firing squad” for Republicans.

Hughes said he told only his family and staff about his decision before Wednesday, so his announcement surprised many — including Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.

“It came as a shock to me to hear he wasn’t running again,” he said. “We work well together, so I’ve appreciated that. I will be sad not to have him around — part of the reason is he always makes life a lot more colorful.”

The sentiment was echoed by Gov. Gary Herbert.

“He has brought characteristic zeal and an incredible work ethic to every aspect of his service. I wish him all the best,” Herbert said in a tweet in which he referred to Hughes as “my great friend.”

An amateur boxer, fan and boxing promoter, Hughes last year held a charity exhibition match and drew parallels between the way he approaches that sport and politics.

“My politics matches my fight game,” said Hughes. "I lead with my chin and I’m always getting hit.”

During the past year, Hughes pushed hard for Operation Rio Grande to clean up crime around downtown Salt Lake City areas frequented by the homeless, and to provide better services to those without homes. He counted that as among his greatest accomplishments in office.

Leading up to the mid-August launch of Operation Rio Grande, Hughes had set up a temporary office — he called it the “war room” — in a building across the street from the homeless shelter, where he would watch drug deals go down as the crackdown was planned.

Among other tough issues lawmakers tackled with Hughes as speaker was the controversial decision to move the Utah State Prison to a site picked from among several locations — all of them controversial. In the end, the project — carrying a price tag of more than $550 million — was slated for northwest Salt Lake City, in the area of Salt Lake City International Airport.

Hughes also became the face of the conservative Republican resistance in Utah to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. The House GOP conducted almost all of its discussions in closed-door caucuses and refused to debate and vote on the issue on the House floor. Hughes defended the approach, saying he didn’t want to waste time on issues that didn’t have enough support to pass.

Earlier this week, Hughes said that his leadership style is not to order members around, but to hold discussions and work out what is best.

“We welcome the discussions that are going to be happening in the weeks to come,” he said. “I’m afraid if I actually said these are marching orders, we wouldn’t do that … because no one wants to be told what to do in the House.”

Hughes, the former chairman of the Utah Transit Authority, also said this week he worries many voters and local officials have lost trust in that scandal-tainted agency, meaning “transit isn’t the viable partner it could be” in solving congestion and pollution.

He said he supports changing how UTA is governed to restore trust. A legislative task force is proposing to replace UTA’s current 16-member board and its CEO with a three-member commission appointed by the governor. “I want to see it work in a way where it is a viable partner for our counties and cities.”

Hughes has served as House speaker since 2015, and previously served as majority whip. He was first elected to the House in 2002.

“It has been the honor of my life to serve as speaker,” he said Wednesday.