Hughes heads for the exits

It was October of 2008, and except for when his mother died at 50 from cancer, Greg Hughes was having the toughest time in his life.

Several fellow legislators had formally brought 30 counts of unethical conduct against him; he was running for re-election against a well-funded Democrat, and early voting in his Draper district was just weeks away.

But those political opponents who thought the three-term, vocal House Republican would fold didn’t know their man.

Hughes, who is less than two weeks away from retiring from the House as a two-term, admired speaker, dug in.

He hired a good lawyer. He demanded open House Ethics Committee hearings. He took on the fight.

Hughes, who entered the House in 2003 at age 32, and leaves at 49 as one of the state’s most successful legislators, beat the political odds way back then.

And he’s beaten back the odds since – even as recently as last month when he oversaw a special legislative session where his Prop 2/medical marijuana compromise became state law.

He tells that he retires from the Legislature with truly mixed feelings. “I’m leaving so many friends; and the team atmosphere where we got so much done.”

But it’s time, personally and politically, he says.

And besides, it’s clear he won’t be gone from the political scene long.

While not ready to announce it, Hughes is looking at the 2020 GOP Utah governor’s race.

One poll showed he had only 3 percent support, and not much name recognition.

But that’s fine for this former amateur boxer.

After all, Hughes likes a scrap – just like that 2008 ethics fight.

Back then, fresh off a private schools voucher loss at a voter referendum, teacher-backers, and others took out after Hughes – a voucher advocate.

The Friday before mail-in ballots went out to voters, the House Ethics Committee dismissed all the charges against him, except saying he had acted in an unprofessional manner toward a GOP colleague. Hughes apologized.

“But I never, never believed then, and don’t now, that I acted unethically,” said Hughes.

And it didn’t take him long to get back on his political feet.

First, he barely won re-election to his House seat – so he stayed in the Utah Legislature.

And then popular Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. asked Hughes to carry his controversial “liquor-by-the-drink” reform bill in the 2009 Legislature, which would do away with Utah’s long-hated private club liquor law.

The LDS Church at first opposed the change – which under normal circumstances would doom any liquor bill on Capitol Hill.

“But we brought them around” with some compromises, recalls Hughes, a Mormon convert. And even though a veteran state senator would ultimately put his name on the legislation, it was Hughes and Huntsman who did the heavy political lifting.

And through hard work, remembers Hughes, there was an ultimate victory.

One of just a few for Hughes, who describes himself, “as a pretty simple guy, really. You see me, that’s what I am.”

Asked to name some of his high-points in his 16-year career on the Hill, Hughes ticks them off – (not in particular order):

— Becoming a two-term speaker when he never believed, after his 2008 ethics hearings, that he would be in leadership.

— Achieving the medical marijuana compromise, after LDS Church leaders came out against the Prop 2 ballot initiative.

— Working on a homeless/drug addiction problem in Salt Lake City, leading to a multi-million dollar reworking in fighting the problem.

— Reforming state transportation funding and mass transit alternatives.

— Relocating the state prison and funding the half-a-billion dollar rebuilding in the northwest part of Salt Lake City.

— Battling the opioid addiction problem for thousands of Utahns.

— Establishing the inland port, also in the northwestern part of the city.

Putting up with 16 years in the Utah Legislature can be seen as an accomplishment alone.

But Hughes’ tenure must be looked at as one of the most successful in some time; although he is quick to say no one gets anything done on the Hill without help from many others, including the governor’s office.

“I’ve learned so much, grown as a person,” says Hughes, as he eats a steak salad – “medium rare, always” — with a reporter in a downtown restaurant.

“I am likely to run again. I’m open to the governor’s seat in 2020,” as incumbent GOP Gov. Gary Herbert is retiring.

“I want a deep, talented field” of candidates, Hughes says. “That is best for the state, and I’m excited about it.”

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Greg Hughes with the chair President Donald Trump sat on during his visit to Utah

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Incoming House Speaker Brad Wilson measuring his new office

But no one can run a gubernatorial race for two years. And so Hughes will be taking a non-public role for at least a bit.

First must come some fundraising, and making more contacts with folks of all stripes – getting his name out there.

“I’m told that someone from the Silicon Slopes (a high-tech millionaire) will likely get in, self-funding their campaign.”

Also likely in the GOP nomination contest will be Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Greg Miller of the Utah Jazz family, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, former Rep. Jason Chaffetz and many more.

Hughes and his business partner have done well in their apartment building/leasing business. But not good enough that will allow Hughes to self-fund any big campaign. So money must be found.

Around the country, newly-elected governors more and more are people coming out of a successful business carrier who don’t have a public record and do have personal money to spend.

“I have a 16-year record for people to see” and to attack, says Hughes.

But he’s OK with that.

“Experience should mean something.” Accomplishments should mean something, he believes.

Hughes says he knows Utah state government as well as anyone; better than most.

He’s helped put together difficult coalitions – medical marijuana, state liquor reform, the homeless, inland port, the prison relocation, and more.

Naysayers abounded.

“So many times I was told this or that wouldn’t work,” he recalls.

When the LDS Church first opposed liquor-by-the-drink, Hughes said he was told he needed to work behind the scenes with church leaders to get anything done.

Instead: “I asked them to come out in the open, come to our committee hearings” on the liquor reform bill.

“And they did.”

While Hughes held private meetings early in the Prop 2 compromise talks, he said publicly that he was working on the compromises, and for the final bill, there were open public hearings, debates, and votes – even though critics complained the church was pulling strings in backrooms.

For now – assuming SB54’s dual-track candidate law stays in place – Hughes says, like Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, he likes the idea of both collecting voters’ signatures to ensure a place on the GOP primary ballot, and going to the state Republican Convention and be voted on by delegates.

Talking pure politics, Hughes said with a large GOP field in 2020, a candidate with a strong base (he defines himself as a conservative who can solve problems and bring sides together) can come out of a primary in the top two.

If the 2019 Legislature adopts some kind of primary runoff process (either a quick by-mail runoff or the top two going back into a delegate convention), Hughes believes he’ll have a chance, even with a 3 percent name I.D. today.

At age 32, facing a well-funded, well-connected GOP challenger for the open Draper state House seat (his opponent was an LDS Church stake president), Hughes outworked the man, walking every neighborhood in the district for several months before the primary, where he won a 5-point victory.

And he won that 2008 race, too; when faced with so much negative media that at one neighborhood town hall meeting no one – I mean no one – showed up at all. Just Hughes sitting in an empty room.

But the poor kid from Pittsburgh, raised by a single mom, didn’t give up.

He’s out of the State Capitol for now. But maybe not for long.