Former House Speaker Greg Hughes jumps into Utah gubernatorial race

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) In reference to his time as former House Speaker Greg Hughes says "we are adjourned," as he slams a hammer on a tool box following announcing his campaign for governor at Dee's Automotive in Murray on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Former House Speaker Greg Hughes on Wednesday made the long-anticipated announcement that he’s vying to become Utah’s next governor.

“You’re the average Joe, the average Jane,” Hughes told a crowd at the Murray automotive shop where he kicked off his campaign. “And that’s who I want to run for.”

The 50-year-old Pittsburgh native served in the Utah House of Representatives for 15 years, leading the chamber from 2015 to 2018. He also was a board member and chairman of the Utah Transit Authority during a time of scandals over sweetheart deals with developers, high executive salaries and international travel.

Known as a scrapper who has sometimes stepped on toes to achieve his goals and shrugged off, rather than avoided, controversy, Hughes most recently was a leader of the Operation Rio Grande effort to curb crime and better control the large population of people experiencing homelessness in downtown Salt Lake City.

Supporters praised the initiative as helping to clean up the area and shift to a new model of homeless services more focused on long-term assistance rather than emergency shelter. Critics saw it as a heavy-handed initiative to clear homeless people out of an area coveted by developers.

Hughes admitted he’s ruffled feathers in the past, arguing that he’s been misunderstood because of his bluntness and direct approach to problem solving. As governor, he vowed, he’d tell hard truths rather than spare feelings and confront the state’s most thorny challenges, even if it comes at a political cost.

“I don’t have time for blue ribbon panels and task forces. We need to move. We need to move now,” Hughes said next to a neon sign that blazed with the message, “Get It Done.”

Former state lawmaker Mike Noel, a polarizing figure in his own right, commended Hughes as the “best conservative in the state of Utah,” someone who would fight for ranchers, farmers and other rural residents if he moves into the Governor’s Mansion.

“Greg is the real deal,” Noel, a Kanab Republican, said.

Early surveys in the GOP contest show other gubernatorial candidates with a sizable lead on Hughes, who’s been polling in the single digits, and he acknowledged he has a “high hill to climb” to become a front-runner. Unlike his rivals, Hughes will not be gathering signatures to get his name on the ballot and will instead bank on support from party delegates at the state Republican convention.

While most of the other GOP candidates have come out swinging against the tax reform package recently approved in the Legislature, Hughes sounded a different note: Avoiding comment on the plan’s specifics, he argued that the effort suffered from a lack of public outreach led by Gov. Gary Herbert.

“When the entire effort is not done with a governor who has the bully pulpit and 100% name ID making the case to the public at large, I don’t think there’s a high level of understanding about what the bill does or doesn’t do,” Hughes said. “And that creates apprehension.”

Hughes said he is not in favor of a referendum effort to repeal the bill and believes the system works best when legislating is handled by the lawmakers, who then stand accountable to their constituents. He declined to take a position on what will likely be the next phase of tax reform — debate over eliminating a constitutional amendment that dedicates income tax revenues to public and higher education.

“I’m not in there,” he said, referring to the Legislature. “They can have that robust debate.”

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson showed up Wednesday to back Hughes, saying his chamber’s former leader wouldn’t be a governor to take the path of least resistance.

“I worked for four years with the speaker, and I’ve seen him say yes to a lot of hard stuff when other people for political reasons or whatever would say no,” Gibson, R-Mapleton, said. “We need a governor that’s willing to keep moving forward.”

In the Legislature, Hughes was a key figure in the drive to develop the northwest section of Salt Lake City into a vast inland port hub for shipment of goods by train and truck under state control. Business leaders praised the effort as the most important economic development move in years while residents panned it as likely to contribute to the capital’s air pollution and a blatant power grab by the Legislature.

Hughes also was a driving force in the controversial effort to move the state prison from Draper, which he represented in the House, to Salt Lake City. The project, whose price tag is pushing $800 million despite original estimates far less expensive, will result in a modernized prison, but one that actually will have capacity for about 400 fewer inmates than the old one.

With Hughes in the race, there are now seven Republicans in the running for the state’s top executive spot.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, Provo businessman Jeff Burningham, former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright and Jason Christensen are also declared GOP candidates for Utah governor.