ST. GEORGE — Ramping up to the November general election, candidates running for Utah’s top executive office are making the final push to get their messages out and convince voters they deserve to be the state’s next governor.
St. George News had a chance to interview Republican gubernatorial candidate Thomas Wright on a host of issues, how growing up in Utah formed his character, his beliefs and his motivation to serve.
Wright, 46, said he believes he is “uniquely qualified” to become governor and represent the best interests of all of the Beehive State’s communities, residents and businesses.
“I have decided to step up and offer myself as a public servant to the state of Utah,” he said. “I can also offer my executive business experience to see how we can get our economy back on track to remain the best state in the best country in the world.”
See Wright’s answers to St. George News’ questions below:
How might have you responded differently to the COVID-19 pandemic if you were governor currently? And how might you address it if it continues to be a concern into 2021?
According to national news, politicians, communities and businesses across the country are preparing for COVID-19 to be a constant for the foreseeable future.
Wright agrees that the situation will remain a balancing act, weighing public health against a “cautious” approach to ensure a strong economy, especially for Southern Utah.
“Past lessons learned in the business world have refined my skills and the ability to make things work during difficult times that will serve me well as Utah’s governor,” Wright said. “I’ve spent the past 12 years, as a business owner, working financial statements and making hard decisions.”
When Wright entered the race for governor, COVID-19 had not yet descended upon America. The virus’s impacts now, he said, have been deep and could remain around for a while and require a “great deal” of diligence in order to get past the challenges that Utah faces.
“COVID-19 hit us out of nowhere. Nobody saw it coming,” he said. “But there are definitely things that we can learn for the next time we find ourselves in an unfortunate situation.”
Foremost to protection is to put “guardrails” on executive orders.
“If challenges are going to go on for a long time we need to make sure we include the legislative branch in the process,” Wright said. “We need the legislative branch to be more engaged.”
Collaboration between the executive and legislative is key to making it on the other side of the pandemic in one piece, Wright added.
There also must be a balance between protecting people against infectious diseases while guaranteeing individual freedom and liberties, he said, adding that the role of government is to collect and provide accurate information and data to the public and allow businesses and individuals to make the “best” decisions for themselves.
“But we need to continue to protect our most at-risk population and acknowledge the seriousness of the coronavirus,” he said.
Coming out of COVID-19 with financial strength, Wright points voters to his economic recovery plan, “Jumpstart.”
“We need we make sure we are giving tax relief to our citizens more quickly,” he said. “As of yet there has been no tax relief to Utah citizens despite having approximately $1 billion in a rainy day fund, a AAA bond rating and other resources that are available.”
The state, not withstanding what the federal government is doing, has not yet provided tax relief to people and small businesses who are struggling, Wright said.
“I’d like to see the government be more responsive to the people it represents … I’d like to see our citizens who have built the greatest state in the country rewarded during a difficult time,” he said.
How do you propose to help Utah recover from the economic downturn created in response to the pandemic? How would you help small businesses and communities, such as those in Southern Utah that rely heavily on events and tourism?
“I am so passionate about Southern Utah and the Zion area,” Wright said. “I remember as a little boy driving to Southern California for a family summer vacation, and I remember what St. George was in 1980, and I can see it 40 years later. It’s absolutely incredible to see all of the growth.”
Wright said he was fortunate to previously have been on Dixie State University’s board of trustees, where he learned how important the school and the local businesses were to the region.
“It’s amazing how Southern Utah has diversified its economy with technology and all kinds of other businesses relocating there,” he added. “This is really why this area has exploded. People have identified what amazing people are there and what a great place it is to do business.”
Facing COVID-19, bolstering small businesses’ needs has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis and not painted by a broad brush, one-size-fits-all support plan, Wright said.
What works in Logan might not work in St. George.
“I would collaborate with local leaders to find specific needs to get the economies back on track,” Wright said. “I will partner with local governments and always deferring to them because they know what their issues are better than I do.”
Regardless of individual plans, he said the best economic approach has to involve getting people back to work, but this must be done “cautiously.”
“We cannot cower from (the pandemic) any longer by keeping our businesses and economy closed,” Wright said.
This is creating devastating impacts that will be long term and regrettable. Now is the time to show that we’ve learned that it is the at-risk populations we need to be most concerned about. We need to be far more active in testing and contact tracing … and we need to make sure we can give our citizens the confidence … to get back to work and get our economy going … in an innovative way.
Do you support the Lake Powell Pipeline?
Wright told St. George News he emphatically supports the pipeline.
It is said throughout the West that whiskey is for drinking and water for fighting. The importance of water and maintaining Utah’s water rights cannot be underestimated to ensure the future success of the state, he said.
“The pipeline is an important part of building the infrastructure for Southern Utah,” Wright said. “Infrastructure has to proceed with growth otherwise you will run into problems.”
According to a 2019 report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute of the University of Utah, the state as a whole has experienced strong population growth, especially since 2013.
Washington County’s population rose by nearly 31% – from 138,579 in 2010 to nearly an estimated 181,000 last year.
According to a policy institute report, Washington County was the fifth most populous county in Utah, growing from 13,900 residents in 1970 to 171,040 in 2018, or an absolute growth of nearly 160,000 people, equaling a greater than 10-fold increase.
“Southern Utah’s population is projected to exceed 500,000 by 2065, and to meet (its) needs we are going to need more water,” Wright said.
Along with protecting water rights, the state must also innovate water conservation techniques, he said.
“I know the St. George does an excellent job in conservation,” Wright said, “but we all need to identify ways in which we can conserve even further.”
Depending solely on the Virgin River Basin water reserves limits growth for Southern Utah, he said, and it is a “risk” that St. George continues to depend largely on only one source of water.
One answer, along with water conservation, is to diversify water availability, such as that which can be drawn from the Lake Powell Pipeline.
Once completed, the diversion project would draw about 86,000 acre-feet a year from Lake Powell to Southern Utah – enough water to support nearly 100,000 homes.
“Under the Colorado River Compact, Utah has the rights to this water,” Wright said. “But we are allowing the flow of water to continue beyond our state’s borders and if we don’t assert our rights to this water we are under the risk of losing (the rights) long term.”
The water allocated to Utah, he added, should exclusively be used for its citizens and its growth.
“I think the Lake Powell Pipeline is a responsible use of water and needs to move forward to support the growth of Southern Utah,” Wright said. “Utah has done well, and we need to continue to plan ahead of the cure. We cannot wait until Southern Utah is tapped out of the water to start thing about what we are going to do next.”
However, the project’s overall costs are a concern.
In 2019, proponents estimated the pipeline’s cost would be between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion. Critics say the price tag will probably be $3 billion or more.
Regardless, the cost would likely be passed along to water users since federal subsidies for water projects have dried up since 2017, according to the United States’ Congressional Budget Office.
What is the advantage of having you as the next governor of Utah?
In the June 30 primary election, Wright is vying for the GOP gubernatorial nomination against Spencer Cox, Gregory Hughes and Jon Huntsman.
When asked what makes him a better choice than the other Republican candidates, the answer came easily.
“For 16 years, my three (Republican) opponents have been involved in government,” Wright said. “They have had their chance to serve, innovate and implement their ideas.”
“I believe 16 years is long enough to accomplish what you want to accomplish. While I respect what they’ve contributed, I believe it’s time for someone new to step up and serve to bring a fresh perspective … to move things forward.”
Although Wright has not held a publicly elected office, his public service resume includes election by county and state delegates as Salt Lake County Republican Party chairman (2009-2011), Utah Republican Party chairman (2011-2013) and national committeeman to represent Utah on the Republican National Committee (2016-2020).
An avid outdoorsman, hunter, fisherman, hiker and camper, Wright says he always been “in awe of Utah’s people, our lifestyle and the quality of life here.”
“Utah is an incredible place.”
Wright was born in Davis County and raised in Salt Lake County.
After attending Utah’s public schools, Wright served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ in Ukraine before attending the University of Utah as a double major in marketing and Russian language.
After employment in a variety of jobs, getting married his wife of 20 years now and raising a family, Wright rolled the dice and became a small business owner in 2008 as the Great Recession began to deepen across America.
He said it might have been a gamble at the time, but he jumped into the deep end of the pool by opening a residential real estate brokerage, Summit Sotheby’s International Realty, when that industry was beginning to struggle mightily.
Always the optimist, Wright said he embraced a tried-and-true cliche.
“When you are given lemons you make lemonade.”
His mantra for success during the recession was simple: When people are buying, you sell, and when they are selling, you buy.
“When we started, I had to make some really hard decisions on how to look at different ways to do business, build teams and collaborate,” he said. “It was really difficult times to be in the real estate space, but we were able to succeed and innovate. Living through that time taught me to be tough and gritty in order to persevere.”
The same approach during the last recession can be applied this time around, he added. It takes laser focus, while not trying to be all things to all people.
“It’s about organizational discipline and having an understanding of how to have a strategic plan, then stick with it,” he said. “You can always solve problems with the right team.”
Twelve years later, his company has grown “considerably.”
What began as a dream when he was in high school to be an entrepreneur, Wright now has 14 offices in St. George, Draper, Salt Lake City, Heber and Park City that employ approximately 250 staff and real estate agents.
“Even as a little boy, I remember telling my mom I wanted to be a business owner,” he said. “I wanted to create something, solve problems and rise to meet the challenges that I would face every day. I believe in the American dream of owning a home, and that’s how I got into real estate.”
The primary election will be held on June 30. Mail-in ballots will begin to be mailed out June 9.
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