Gehrke: He went from a punk kid to Utah’s House speaker. Now, Greg Hughes is getting out at the top of his game.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

The first time I encountered Greg Hughes was 1995 and he was a punk kid shouting at a reporter from a national publication to shut up. He included a choice profanity for emphasis. At the time, I had no idea who he was, other than a supporter of an embattled member of Congress holding a tense news conference.

We crossed paths again, years later, when he was an up-and-comer in the Utah House — and he knew it. I got wind of a disagreement he’d had with a senior member of the Senate and he recounted a jab he made at the senator’s height, then was upset when I quoted him on it.

But in the decade since then, a strange thing happened: Hughes grew up.

And as he did, his political profile and prominence grew as well. Like him or not, Hughes has, in recent years, had more sway on Utah issues than just about anybody else.

(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.

In 2009, he was the force behind revamping Utah’s liquor laws to get rid of private clubs.

In 2011, he initiated a process to relocate the Utah prison, which had been in his Draper district for half a century. It’ll soon be built in Salt Lake City.

Remember when the House scuttled Gov. Gary Herbert’s version of Medicaid expansion in 2015? It was House Republicans who dug in to oppose that issue (a move that cost tens of thousands of Utahns access to crucial health care, something we should never forget). And it was Hughes who, more than anyone, was a fierce advocate for the unpopular position.

And last year, when efforts to combat homelessness were flailing, it was Hughes who — really using nothing but a couple media interviews to publicly challenge elected officials — forced people to coalesce behind Operation Rio Grande.

His style as House speaker is different than that of his predecessor, Becky Lockhart. Where Lockhart was more prone to allow representatives to push and pull the agenda, Hughes had a heavier hand, more akin to the tenure of speakers like David Clark and Greg Curtis.

Like all of those speakers, Hughes will keep the tradition of not serving more than two terms in the House’s top leadership spot — announcing to his Republican colleagues Wednesday morning that he would not seek re-election later this year.

Hughes told reporters Wednesday he has a full agenda to push in the upcoming legislative session. If they think he’s “a lame duck, they will find a wounded wolf,” he said. “I will work very hard. I am not limping out of public service. I’m not leaving with my tail between my legs.”

And what lies ahead for Hughes?

He has previously been courted by national Republicans to make a bid for Congress, but declined. And it seems unlikely that he’d run for Orrin Hatch’s Senate seat this year, especially with Mitt Romney interested.

The most likely course is a bid for governor in 2020, in which case getting out now makes sense. Legislators are prohibited from raising money during the session, so he would either have to quit early or he’d be stuck unable to raise money during a critical period in the 2020 election cycle when other candidates are in full-on campaign mode.

And the field will be crowded. Already, the list of prospective candidates includes people like Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Mitt Romney’s son Josh, Attorney General Sean Reyes, and possibly U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop.

There’s another possibility: Hughes met early last year with members of President Donald Trump’s transition team to discuss a potential position in the Transportation Department.

It didn’t pan out, but Hughes’ relationship with TrumpWorld remains strong, as Trump made clear when he visited Utah to dismantle two national monuments.

“You know, you always remember those original supporters. Greg Hughes. Greg, thank you,” Trump said in the state Capitol. “He was an original right at the beginning.”

Hughes was actually backing Sen. Marco Rubio from the beginning, but let Trump have his alternative facts on this one.

It’s entirely possible that Hughes will be offered a position over the last half of the administration, and that it would be more appealing than slugging it out for governor.

Wherever he ends up, Hughes has come a long ways since he was a punk kid, and likely has a few more acts left on the political stage.

Return to Story