Hughes Elected Speaker; Niederhauser Wins Another Term as Senate President (Video)

Sometimes the conventional wisdom in politics is way off base.

That’s what happened when Utah’s GOP members of the Legislature met to elect a new Speaker of the House on Thursday night.

A few weeks ago the smart money was on Rep. Brad Dee (R-Ogden) to replace outgoing Speaker Becky Lockhart. But something happened in the last two weeks that shifted the electoral winds toward Rep. Greg Hughes (R-Draper).

That culminated in the House caucus room when Hughes won on the first ballot to take the top spot in the House. In fact, multiple sources say they stopped counting votes midway through the first round when Hughes reached 31. At that point Dee had 15 votes and Mel Brown (R-Coalville) had 4.

Brown jumped into the speaker’s race late and it was thought he would take votes away from Hughes, maybe even be able to trade his support in order to keep his plum assignment as chair of the Executive Appropriations Committee. Turns out, Hughes didn’t need him as he cruised to victory.

“This is the honor of my life,” said Hughes shortly after his election. “I was able to meet with every one of my colleagues and, win or lose, they were going to pick who they felt was best suited to lead this body.”

Hughes says he expects to see a lot of energy from his peers when he gavels the session to order come January.

“I’ve counted 40 of my colleagues who have served 4 years or less. There’s a youthful enthusiasm in terms of time spent in office. We will have a real vibrant and energetic House moving forward.”

Along with Hughes, Rep. Jim Dunnigan (R-Taylorsville) was elected the new Majority leader. He said one thing that he wants to change is the way legislation gets passed in the final days of the session.

“I am concerned with mad rush of bills passed in the last few days of the session,” he said. “I think a little more deliberative process would serve us better. There are some mechanisms we can affect to do that better.”

Dunnigan and Hughes promised to continue the “atmosphere of transparency” in the House that was ushered in under former Speaker Lockhart. In fact, Dunnigan took a light-hearted shot at the Senate for keeping their caucus meetings closed to the public while most of the House caucus meetings are open.

“We won’t get less transparent with our meetings. We’re not the Senate” he said to a roomful of laughter. When he realized Senate President Wayne Niederhauser was in the room, Dunnigan didn’t miss a beat. “I have the utmost respect for our colleagues in the Senate” he deadpanned.

Also elected to the new House leadership team was Majority Whip Francis Gibson (R-Mapleton) and Assistant Majority Whip Brad Wilson (R-Kaysville).

There wasn’t any change on the Senate side. Senate President Wayne Niderhauser (R-Sandy) won another term in that position as did Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund (R-Monroe). Stuart Adams (R-Layton) continues as Majority Whip and Peter Knudson (R-Brigham City) remains Assistant Majority Whip. Niederhauser and Okerlund ran unopposed.

Niederhauser says it’s a big advantage that they kept their leadership team intact, especially since they will be considering tough issues in 2015 like Gov. Herbert’s “Healthy Utah” Medicaid expansion alternative.

“We’ve gotten used to each other and how we do things,” he quipped. “We are a well-oiled group and should remain that way going forward.”

Both the House and Senate Republicans will have an all-day caucus meeting in December where they will lay out their priorities for the 2015 session.

House and Senate Democrats plan to meet later in November to elect their new leadership teams.