When you personally helped bring down the state’s top law enforcement officer and been in court battles with some of the most powerful politicians around, what is next for you?
Well, in the case of Mark Thomas it’s becoming chief of staff to the Utah Senate.
Thomas, head of the state elections office and chief deputy to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, is leaving the Utah Elections Office where he’s worked for more than a decade to head up the Senate staff.
Thomas admits it may be seen as an odd move to some.
“But change is good. And I am ready for it,” says Thomas, 37, a husband and father of two little girls.
Thomas replaces Ric Cantrell, who (and here’s an odd connection) has left the Senate chief of staff job to do the same thing for Attorney General Sean Reyes.
And it was Thomas who oversaw – as chief elections officer – the UEO’s staff investigation of former AG John Swallow, an investigation that led to a special counsel, who in turn issued a report that led to Swallow’s resignation for violating two core state campaign finance laws.
Reyes had been defeated by fellow Republican Swallow for the AG nomination in 2012, and when Swallow resigned Reyes was picked by GOP delegates for the top law enforcement job.
But I get ahead of myself.
Every young person who wants to get into politics and public policy needs a mentor.
And Thomas found his in early 2005 with then-newly-elected Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert.
Thomas got the politics bug way back in grade school, where the Orem youth delivered newspapers and used to read about politicians and public policy decision-making.
And the local guy who was often in the papers Thomas read as he delivered them was Utah County Commissioner Gary Herbert.
Thomas had never met Herbert. But as a political science major at the University of Utah he got the chance to apply for an internship in the Utah governor’s office.
“I sat down for my initial interview, and the person asked me if I wanted to intern for the governor (newly-elected Jon Huntsman Jr.) or the lieutenant governor,” recalls Thomas.
“I knew of Herbert, admired him. I said I wanted to work in the lieutenant governor’s office. The person said no one ever wanted that – interns always want to work for the governor. So I got the Lt. Gov. internship right there.”
That internship led to another internship with the Republican National Committee back in Washington, D.C.
And when that internship ended Thomas moved back to Utah and started sending his resume around.
It was early 2006, and the Utah Elections Office – under the direct control of Lt. Gov. Herbert – needed new staff to help set up the federally-required touch-screen voting machines and training.
Thomas was hired on, helped with the “successful” machine implementation – over fears by some skeptical Utahns that automated machines could take over punch-card or paper ballots.
Huntsman resigned to become ambassador to China, Herbert became governor and picked then-Sen. Greg Bell to be lieutenant governor. Bell liked Thomas and over time promoted him to run the elections office.
And, later, when the office’s budget was being stretched, Bell decided to combine his chief deputy job with the election office director.
It’s where Thomas sits today – now under Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
But back to Swallow.
Imagine a Republican lieutenant governor getting a campaign finance complaint against the new Republican Attorney General filed by a liberal-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah?
That is where Bell and Thomas found themselves.
But Bell and Thomas decided the citizens’ work would be done; politics be damned.
ABB had 12 specific complaints about Swallow. Thomas headed up the staff internal investigation, threw out 10 of the complaints as misguided, but had two they wanted to pursue.
With Bell’s support, a special counsel was hired. And further investigation (meanwhile, the GOP-controlled Utah House also started a special investigation against Swallow) was warranted, recalled Thomas.
While other Swallow troubles grabbed the headlines, it was the Bell/Thomas investigation that led to Swallow resigning the day the special counsel’s report was scheduled to be released.
Swallow “knew what the report said,” said Thomas. “We held the report one day, he resigned, we released it.”
(Swallow would later face felony charges, but an extended trial led to his acquittal on all counts.)
That may have been the media high point for the Utah Elections Office during Thomas time there.
But there always seems to be something going on in the office that Thomas originally believed would be rather a boring – but important – place to serve.
Just this year, following the law, Thomas refused to allow the new United Utah Party to file in a timely fashion for the 3rd District U.S. House special election.
UUP went to court, and Thomas says he was glad to put the new party on the ballot after the court ordered him to do so.
“I’ve learned a lot about going to court,” Thomas says with some irony.
A special bi-partisan Senate committee, headed up by Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, picked Thomas to replace Cantrell.
Thomas will start next month.
He wants to move the Senate to the next level, he says, as Utah’s population grows quickly and the 29 senators will find themselves with larger and larger districts.
“There will be a real challenge in constituent communication,” says Thomas, among other assignments.
Still, Utah is still small enough “that you can get things done here; solve problems.”
A person having a problem with state government may not be a big thing overall, says Thomas.
“But it is a big thing for that person. I want to help” the senators “help their constituents.
Solving problems. Helping people. “That is what public service is about.”