ST. GEORGE — Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes officially announced his entry into the Utah gubernatorial race Wednesday morning and got a swift start on the campaign trail, visiting Southern Utah Thursday to attend the St. George Area Economic Summit.
Hughes, R-Draper, served 16 years in the Utah House of Representatives, including two terms as speaker of the house (2015-2018). Hughes did not seek reelection after 2018 and has spent the past year living as “citizen Hughes,” he said, as well as preparing to announce his candidacy for governor.
The sometimes polarizing politician is known for his work on Operation Rio Grande, a state and Salt Lake City local government project. The project aims to reduce crime in the downtown area of Salt Lake City, which is frequented by homeless people, as well as create better services to help curb homelessness.
It is an ongoing project, and one that an emotional Hughes said he is proud to have been part of.
“I saw things I can’t unsee,” Hughes said of the area prior to Operation Rio Grande. “That’s not Utah.”
The project is something Hughes pointed to as an example of being able to work across party lines to reduce crime and help some of the most vulnerable people in the state.
It’s all about empathy, Hughes said.
As Hughes begins his campaign, he is adamant that the race for governor not be solely about the Wasatch front. Even though the largest concentration of people – and therefore the most votes – is located in northern Utah, Hughes has a strong affinity for the people of Washington County as well as the many rural counties in the state.
He outlined growth, water, housing affordability and creating an emerging workforce, particularly in rural areas, as issues he hopes to tackle as governor.
“Growth isn’t something we get to choose, it’s a reality,” Hughes said. “So if it’s a reality, what are we doing and what are we talking about to make sure that our children and this emerging workforce get to enjoy what we did?”
Hughes said he was able to start and keep open a successful business here in Utah because of the way the state has grown, and he wants future generations to be able to prosper too.
The longtime public servant is not without opposition – he is staunchly opposed to Medicaid expansion and is highly in favor of the creation of the controversial inland port, which he believes would help Utah be a vital link in the global economy.
Still, Hughes doesn’t shy away from making hard decisions and having difficult conversations. In fact, it is one of the reasons he wants to become governor. Hughes said he loves when people come to him with an idea or issue and he can be part of finding a solution.
Looking at 2020 and beyond, Hughes said he doesn’t think Utah can skate over the tough issues anymore.
“I think you’re going to have to have a different kind of governor, a governor that is willing to have some difficult conversations,” Hughes said. “it’s good, that means that we have great opportunities but they are going to take some work.”
Work is something that Hughes is no stranger to. He was raised by a single mother in Pittsburgh and grew up very poor, he said.
His life, though hard, informs who he is as a person and how he tries to understand others and how he is as a father, he said.
Hughes and his wife have been married for 25 years, and together they have three children, all of whom are a great support to him in his life as a public servant. His oldest daughter will be taking a semester off from college to work on the campaign, he said.
Rather than gathering signatures to earn himself a spot on the primary ballot, Hughes has chosen to go all-in at the state Republican convention and try to earn his place on the ballot directly from the delegates.
Hughes said his past experiences of being able to speak more in-depth with state delegates has served him well, and he hopes to be able to continue that success in the upcoming state convention.
In addition to being able to meet with the delegates and speak with people about issues on a more personal level, Hughes said he doesn’t want to run his campaign from a place of fear.
“I would only get signatures if I was afraid that I would not be able to get out of that convention,” Hughes said. “I don’t like to make decisions based out of fear.”
The state Republican convention will take place April 25 – Republican delegates from each county will be elected in March – and Hughes will need to emerge from the state convention with enough votes to be included on the primary ballot, whereas those who collect enough signatures will move directly onto the primary ballot, he said.
“I applaud Hughes for his decision to use the state caucus and convention system,” said Jimi Kestin, chairman of the Washington County Republicans.
Kestin said that as chairman, he must remain impartial toward any candidate until a Republican nominee has been chosen, but he is a strong supporter of the caucus and convention system, adding that he feels it is the best way to vet candidates and select a nominee.
Kestin said he does not think poorly of those who have chosen to use the law as it currently exists to gather enough signatures to be included on the primary ballot, but he also feels it is important for the candidates to speak out about their feelings on the senate bill that allowed for a dual path to the ballot.
“Washington County is an important area for anyone seeking to be the next Republican candidate for governor,” Kestin said. “We are the red end of the red state and I am not talking about the rocks.”
Hughes has joined a packed field of GOP candidates including front runners such as Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, and 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 Republican candidates.
Hughes said if he wins and becomes the next governor he is ready to hit the ground running to tackle the big issues facing the state. He said his experience in the state legislature creates a great potential for the legislative and executive branches of the state government to work seamlessly together.
“I have a bias towards action,” Hughes said. “We need leadership and we need to work together on some important and critical issues.”
If his bid is unsuccessful, Hughes said he still sees himself in public policy. And though he doesn’t know exactly what that would look like, he will continue to serve the state of Utah in some capacity.
“Being a part of something bigger than myself is what I really like,” he said.
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