Political power is a tricky thing, difficult to define but easy to spot when it is exercised. It can be rooted in holding a high political office, having the ability to shape the debates, influencing those in positions of authority — or all of the above.
The Salt Lake Tribune, in consultation with a small group of politically connected Utahns, has cobbled together a snapshot of who wields that power in the state — the people who, love ’em or hate ’em, exercise the most influence on our day-to-day lives. Most of them you’ve probably heard of, some of them work behind the scenes.
Here is a look at those power players and some others to keep an eye on:
No. 25: Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski
Salt Lake City mayor can be a tricky job as Biskupski tries to keep a progressive city at peace in a conservative state. She gets love from national media and rates her tenure so far as an “A-,” but others are less kind. The coming year will be a test for the mayor, to see if she can cajole the City Council into adopting her vision before heading into her 2019 re-election campaign.
No. 24: Former Gov. Mike Leavitt
Leavitt — the former Utah governor, Environmental Protection Agency administrator and Health and Human Services secretary — picks his fights these days, but still carries the gravitas earned in a quarter century in politics. He is, once again, a key player in the Count My Vote ballot initiative aimed at letting voters decide party nominees in primaries and runs a health care consulting company.
No. 23: Utah mega-donor Scott Keller
A high-rolling investment manager, Keller plays host to presidential candidates and politicos and is one of the state’s largest political donors year in and year out. In 2016, his company gave more than $300,000 to federal races alone. Keller is close to Mitt Romney and will be important in his anticipated Senate run in Utah. The curious thing is that Keller generally doesn’t use his connections, but there’s no question he has them.
No. 22: Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie
If not for his imminent retirement, Beattie would rank higher on the list. For 15 years, Beattie has been president of the Salt Lake Chamber and the Downtown Alliance, advocating for the city’s business community on issues from tax policy to air quality to liquor laws to transit infrastructure in both Utah and D.C. Beattie, a former state Senate president, will stay on the job at the chamber until his replacement is chosen later this year.
No. 21: RSL Owner Dell Loy Hansen
A hard-driving real estate developer who owns Real Salt Lake and a chain of radio stations, Hansen is also a big-time political donor who isn’t shy about using his influence. Years ago he swung a big tax break from Salt Lake County without anyone really noticing, and more recently made a play to develop a soccer facility near the state Fairpark.
No. 20: U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart
He’s not flashy or particularly well-known, but Stewart has certainly not rocked the boat, either. He has drawn on his experience as an Air Force pilot to take an active role in defense issues and was rumored to be in the running to be secretary of the Air Force. He has landed a spot on the committee that sets the budget for public lands. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, he has consistently downplayed any ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
No. 19: Attorney General Sean Reyes
Since taking office in 2013, Reyes has been most associated with efforts to combat human trafficking. But he also manages an office with more than 200 attorneys representing the state. He has joined in efforts to protect Utah egg farmers and to attempt to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable for the spread of dangerous opioids — although he was recently criticized by House Speaker Greg Hughes for not being more aggressive on the opioid issue. Reyes was considered for the chairmanship of the Federal Trade Commission, but didn’t get the job.
No. 18: Real estate mogul Kem Gardner
Gardner once ran for governor as a Democrat, but it’s his ties to Republican politicos — especially Mitt Romney — that give him leverage on political issues. Gardner is a wealthy real estate developer, who has given generously to various political campaigns on both sides of the aisle. Perhaps more than anything, his profile has been enhanced recently by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, which has become ground zero for policy debate and research in the state.
No. 17: Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox
Traditionally, the position of lieutenant governor doesn’t bring a lot of clout, but Herbert has trusted the pride of Fairview with a broad portfolio. Cox is now the governor’s point person on homelessness, leading a rural jobs initiative, a liaison to the Legislature and last week was chosen to head a task force on teen suicide. Cox’s outspoken social media presence and across-the-aisle popularity also make him a formidable contender for the governor’s seat in 2020.
No. 16: House Majority Leader Brad Wilson
In eight years in the House, Wilson has built a reputation as a deal-maker in the Legislature and risen quickly through the ranks, first assuming the position of budget vice chairman and last year being chosen as majority leader without opposition. He also led the prison relocation commission and sponsored liquor legislation last year that got rid of the “Zion Curtain” in restaurants. With Hughes announcing his departure after this year, Wilson is a favorite to become the next speaker.
No. 15: U.S. Rep. Mia Love
After a convincing win in the 2016 election, Love has elevated her profile, speaking out against sexual harassment in Congress and, on occasion, criticizing President Donald Trump. Most recently, she blasted the president’s comments aimed at immigrants from Haiti (her parents’ native country) and others. She enjoys a good relationship with House Speaker Paul Ryan, is a reliable Republican vote and has supported the Trump administration’s agenda 97 percent of the time.
No. 14: Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams
There are few in Utah’s Capitol who have had their hands in more issues than Adams, from transportation funding to the state’s LGBTQ anti-discrimination law to incentives for a California coal port to tax policy. Adams is the consummate deal-maker and now is favored to be the next Senate president after Wayne Niederhauser steps down.
No. 13: Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams
The highest-ranking Democrat on the list, McAdams is the executive of the state’s second largest jurisdiction (behind the state). During his tenure, the county has seen brisk job growth, provided services to help address homelessness and expanded its early childhood education. He’s done it while building good relationships with Republican leaders in the state. Now he’s taking on Love in a bid for Utah’s 4th Congressional District seat.
No. 12: Senate President Wayne Niederhauser
On paper, Niederhauser would be ranked higher, but (to his credit) his style in the Senate has largely been to let the body work through issues instead of taking a heavy-handed approach. At day’s end, he still ends up with tremendous sway on the big issues. A tax policy wonk, expect him to get into the weeds during upcoming tax reform discussions in what he has said will be his final year in office.
No. 11: Kingmaker Jon Huntsman Sr.
The billionaire philanthropist with one of the state’s most recognizable names, Huntsman Sr. has been a politically involved kingmaker for decades. The father of the former governor and current ambassador to Russia continues to use the family wealth and access. And you still don’t cross him, as his run-in with University of Utah President David Pershing showed last year. Oh, and by the way, his son, Paul, owns The Salt Lake Tribune.
No. 10: Sportsmen’s advocate Don Peay
Founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, Peay has special pull in Trump world. He has hunted with Donald Trump Jr., was the head of the Trump campaign in Utah and has the ear of the White House and Interior Department when it comes to public lands issues. He holds sway with Utah politicians on a host of issues.
No. 9: U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop
As chairman of the House Resources Committee, Bishop has used his position to influence Utah’s public lands debates. He also is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, where he has advanced the interests of Hill Air Force Base in his district. The problem for Bishop and the other representatives on the list, is that Congress can’t manage to pass any legislation.
No. 7 & 8: Scott Anderson and Gail Miller
Anderson, the president of Zions Bank, and Miller, a prominent businesswoman and the wealthiest person in the state, have used their financial resources to reshape the city and, potentially, the political climate. They are main backers of the Count My Vote initiative to change how party nominees are chosen and a ballot initiative to raise taxes to fund Utah schools. Both have the ear of political leaders and have been active in the community, as well.
No. 6: LDS Church lobbyist Marty Stephens
When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks, Utah politicians listen, and Stephens is the church’s messenger on Capitol Hill. Stephens, a former three-term House speaker, took over the job as the faith’s lobbyist last year. The church, itself, is without question the most influential force in the state and has, through the years, waded into issues such as immigration, liquor laws, religious freedom, same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization and more, sometimes publicly, oftentimes behind the scenes. Ninety percent of the Utah Legislature, the entire congressional delegation and all of the state’s constitutional officers are members of the predominant faith, as are about 60 percent of Utahns. The church will pick its battles, and when it does, it will prevail.
No. 5: Sen. Mike Lee
Since his election in 2010, Lee has worked with Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to advance their libertarian brand of conservatism, towing the Republican line on issues like religious freedom and eliminating Obamacare, and sparring with the party over issues such as government surveillance and executive power. With Sen. Orrin Hatch’s looming retirement, Lee is primed to take an even more prominent role.
No. 4: Mitt
The man so popular in Utah we don’t even have to use his full name. His prominence on the national stage has enabled Romney to operate in a different political realm than other Utahns. When he speaks, national media pay attention, and he has used that platform to assail Trump’s most outlandish statements and policies, making him the de facto voice of the traditional Republican establishment. Local politicos seek his endorsement, but for the most part he has not dirtied his hands with Utah issues. That should change, as he is expected to announce his candidacy to replace Hatch in the Senate — a race he is a heavy favorite to win. The office could put Romney directly in the national spotlight and enhance his influence nationally.
No. 3: Gov. Gary Herbert
This week, Herbert became the longest-serving governor in the United States. He took office in the depths of the recession and has seen a stretch of economic growth, low unemployment and general prosperity. His style remains that of a manager, shaping policy with a light touch, building consensus and generally letting the Legislature drive the agenda. It has worked well. He won re-election handily in 2016 and enjoys a sky-high approval rating in his final term in office.
No. 2: House Speaker Greg Hughes
Over the past several years, Hughes has shown his ability to use his office and the bully pulpit to shape the agenda at the state level. Most notably, last year he forced action to crack down on crime around the homeless shelter in downtown Salt Lake City, but he has had a direct impact on every major legislative issue in Utah’s Capitol. Hughes also has close ties to Trump World, particularly the president’s son Trump Jr. In this, his last year in the Legislature, Hughes has promised to tackle an aggressive range of issues.
No. 1: The senior senator, Orrin Hatch
Sure, he’s a lame duck, but over more than four decades Hatch has accrued the kind of power rarely seen in this state. He is third in the line of succession for the presidency, heads the Senate Finance Committee and has tentacles spread all across Washington and Utah. He enjoys a chummy relationship with Trump, evidenced by the president’s shoutout to Hatch in December when he shrunk two Utah national monuments and praised the senator’s work on a tax package. This time next year, Hatch will be retired. Until then, he is, hands down, Utah’s most powerful political figure.
Here are a few more movers and shakers on the political scene who didn’t quite make the list, but are still forces to be reckoned with:
State School Superintendent Sydnee Dickson • Education consumes the lion’s share of the state budget and is a top priority for Utahns, and Dickson is the top education official in the state.
Former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz • Chaffetz up and quit, but remains relevant as a Fox News commentator and is popular with conservative Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund • This likable senator still calls many of the shots when it comes to what bills make it to the Senate floor.
U.S. Rep. John Curtis • The newest member of Utah’s delegation still has to pay his dues, but should be able to hold the 3rd District seat as long as he wants it.
Fred Lampropoulos • The founder and CEO of Merit Medical is a generous and well-connected donor to political campaigns.
Sen. Curt Bramble • A bulldog on the Hill, Bramble has been one of the body’s most prolific legislators.
Greg Hartley • Chief of staff to House Speaker Greg Hughes has a mind-meld with his boss. People call them “The Gregs.”
Justin Harding • Chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert, he’s got a range of experience, is well-liked and puts out fires across state government.
Heidi Matthews • There is strength in numbers and Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, leads a group with 18,000 educators.