Bob Bernick’s notebook: I’ll miss Greg Hughes

News this week that Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes has decided to retire from the House at the end of 2018 and not run again this year.

It’s natural to have turnover in the Legislature’s leadership, especially for House speakers.

Traditionally, speakers serve two, two-year terms. And then step out of the House altogether rather than return to the body as a former leader.

We’ve only had one three-term speaker in modern times, Marty Stephens, who wished to stay on as speaker so he could run for governor in 2004 from that platform.

Hughes, too, is looking at the open gubernatorial seat in 2020.

But he decided not to run for speaker for the third time, but to leave the House, rest up a bit, and then look at the 2020 races.

There are pluses and minuses to this strategy, of course.

Assuming he could have won a third term as speaker (in Stephens’ third race, the first round of voting in the GOP House caucus had a tie; Stephens winning on the second ballot by one vote), Hughes would have had the high-media platform to run for governor in 2020.

But he also would have been expected to back most of what outgoing-Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration was doing.

And a key part of that administration is Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who has also developed a high media profile recently and is looking at the 2020 race.

Thus, Hughes as speaker wouldn’t have been in a good position from 2018 to 2020 to be criticizing the Herbert/Cox administration.

The late House Speaker Becky Lockhart, looking to challenge Herbert in 2016, had started being critical of Herbert’s actions before she decided to retire from the House after two terms as the state’s first female speaker.

Tragically, Lockhart died of a rare brain disease just after leaving office in 2015.

By leaving now, Hughes avoids a possible political stumbling block should he have lost the speakership race in mid-November (he would have been almost assured of winning his Draper House seat again this year had he decided to seek re-election).

But more importantly, Hughes will be free in a year to start criticizing the Herbert/Cox administration, if he so chooses and sees the opportunities.

That will set him apart from Cox – both men being likable guys who otherwise would be politically friendly.

In fact, after Herbert designated Cox as his homeless point-man, Cox and Hughes have worked closely together on that politically volatile issue.

Hughes should be able to adequately fundraise after leaving office, aiming for the governor’s race, which will likely cost more than $1 million.

And Hughes could decide to just give up politics, as most former speakers do.

But I don’t see that.

I’ve gotten to know Hughes pretty well over the last dozen years.

He’s a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve.

And he loves politics – going way, way back to his native Pittsburgh and his early political dealings with the now-disgraced Joe Waldholtz, and Hughes’ early support of Enid Greene’s campaigns.

I certainly would not have prophesized Hughes becoming speaker of the House, especially after his bitter battle against a Democratic-launched ethics investigation of Hughes just before the 2008 elections.

But Hughes rallied.

Former GOP-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. asked Hughes to spearhead what I thought was an impossible task: Getting the LDS Church and conservatives to agree to liquor-by-the-drink alcohol reforms in the 2009 Legislature.

Hughes got it done.

And he was off and running, literally as he decided to run for leadership a few years later.

Every speaker is different, of course.

I’ve covered dozens of them over the decades, going way back to the late 1970s and Jim Hansen, who would later become a long-term U.S. congressman.

From a newsman’s point of view, I’ll miss Hughes.

For he was fun to cover, always up to something and occasionally making news that later came back to bite him in the butt.

A former amateur boxer – he fought a charitable bout just last year – Hughes was always up for a fight.

We’ll see if he’s up for what might be considered an underdog battle in the 2020 governor’s race.

Expect Hughes to stay in the media spotlight during the rest of 2018.

Governor’s campaigns can easily run over a year these days – so Utah politicos may only have a few Hughesless months in early 2019 before we start seeing Hughes again.