Former U.S. Rep. James Hansen, who has hinted since early summer he may enter the 2004 gubernatorial race, says the time for hinting is over.
Hansen, an 11-term Republican congressman who did not seek re-election in 2002, joins an already crowded field full of strong contenders bidding to succeed popular three-term incumbent Mike Leavitt.
The slate includes political workhorses in the GOP like former House Speaker Nolan Karras, from Roy, and is expected to draw entry from current House Speaker Marty Stephens, also from Weber County. Former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr., son of billionaire and philanthropist Jon Huntsman, is also in the hunt.
The list goes on, and arguably makes the contest the biggest political attraction in Utah since 1992, the last time there was an open seat for the state's top chief executive position.
"It's going to be an exciting year if you like politics," said Chris Bleak, executive director of the State Republican Party. "Anytime there is an open seat for governor, there is even more heightened interest. It is a critical position, and both parties should rightly want to have their person in office.
No wonder it is a fight."
Hansen, from Farmington, has set up a campaign phone line and says he intends to file campaign committee papers with the lieutenant governor's office on Oct. 1. He's waiting until then so there is no confusion over the conversion of his federal campaign accounts into his run for state office.
Top Republican candidates will be glad-handing delegates in advance of the May 8 GOP convention. Barring a split vote, forcing a primary election, the highest vote-getter there will emerge to face the Democrat's anticipated choice, Scott Matheson Jr.
"It is a race that is going to be hard to handicap because of the number of strong candidates," Bleak said. "It will boil down to who decides to put in the work needed to win the nomination. . . . It is going to be a fight for these delegates' minds, decided by whoever has the ideas and who can make people feel best about their vision and where they want to go with the state."
Hansen said his 42 years of public service qualifies him to lead the state and is an advantage over many of the other candidates.
"I honestly feel like I have contributed to the state of Utah," he said. "I know how hard it is, and I am one of the few who have been in this business a long time."
Hansen entered politics at the age of 28 by running for a seat on the Farmington City Council. He went on to serve a dozen years on the council, eight years in the Utah Legislature and 22 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In his Washington career, he earned the distinction of being the only Utahn to achieve enough seniority to chair a full House committee, which he did twice. He said his experiences as chairman of the House Resources Committee and his status as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee would help him guide Utah through some tough battles and public policy issues in the years to come. Hansen said he'll be able to build a strong connection between Utah and the federal government, which would benefit the state immensely.
Hansen is already eyeing the next round of proposed base closures with an aim to protect Hill Air Force Base. The former congressman is widely regarding as helping save Hill from closure during the Clinton administration.
Although long criticized by environmentalists, Hansen points to his political expertise and knowledge of natural resource issues.
"The resources of Utah are phenomenal, with oil shale, coal, natural gas, fossil fuels, timber," he said. "We have great resources, and we also have a beautiful state that should not be trammeled and not be hurt. In Congress, I was able to help a number of Western states, and I have been more active on that because of my background."
Hansen agrees with Bleak that it will take more than just strong name recognition to survive the convention.
"Nobody gets a free pass," Hansen said. "You have to get in and slug it out and make it among the delegates. Plus, I am not a very wealthy guy."
Hansen says he expects to tap a strong Washington, D.C., base of support and do some fund-raising there.
"It's been my base for 22 years, and I've had some overwhelming response from some fine people."