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Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes on short list of candidates to lead Salt Lake Chamber

SALT LAKE CITY — House Speaker Greg Hughes is on a short list of candidates to replace Lane Beattie when the longtime Salt Lake Chamber president and CEO steps down, the Deseret News has learned.

Hughes, R-Draper, acknowledged that he's talked with the chamber about the position, though he declined to elaborate on those discussions, noting that the House is midway through the Legislature's 45-day session and weighty issues such as trying to funnel more money to education and cutting taxes still must be tackled.

"I've been asked: Would you consider it? … I'm not ruling anything out," the House speaker said during an interview this week from his office at the Capitol.

Hughes, who announced last month that he would not be seeking re-election, is among a handful of candidates described as "finalists" for the position, sources told the Deseret News.

A Salt Lake Chamber spokeswoman declined to comment on Hughes being a candidate to replace Beattie, saying only that the chamber is "in the middle of a search process" and has several "great candidates."

Beattie announced in November that he plans to retire after 15 years as president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and the Downtown Alliance, though a date for his departure has not been announced.

Sources say Hughes, 48, is eyeing the post as a way to further his political career and stay involved with development in downtown Salt Lake City, particularly the northwest quadrant where the new state prison is being constructed, while keeping his options open for a possible run for governor.

Gov. Gary Herbert has said he will not seek re-election in 2020.

Hughes said he's not "measuring drapes" for any other office — and he's warned others not to push him out the door either.

"As I've watched other people hold public office, and the discussions of higher or other offices come into play, it's never sat well with me for someone to be measuring drapes for another office" when they still have responsibilities in their current role, Hughes said.

"I want to avoid contemplating or making decisions about those things while I'm here," he said. "I don't want to be trying to think too far ahead and even allow it to color my decision-making process here. … I want to be able to make those decisions that are hard to make and that might not lend themselves to future prospects."

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the chamber move could make sense for Hughes, calling it a "viable, important position and yet one that is at least a bit removed from the nature of electoral politics."

It's a "great position for an aspiring politician," Burbank said, "because what you're able to do there is to continue to meet and play a part with the movers and shakers of the political world, of the business world particularly."

Chris Karpowitz, associate professor of political science at BYU, called it "a productive way for Greg Hughes to spend time preparing for a run for governor, if that's what he intends to do."

"It would allow him to develop new ties to the business community in Utah and deepen the ties he already has, if that is his plan. I think that's a sensible to way to spend the two years getting ready for a run for governor."

It's a "less appealing" prospect, however, from the Salt Lake Chamber's perspective, Burbank said.

"One of the key features of this position is establishing relationships and having them play out over the long-term, a little like what you saw happen with Lane Beattie. He was in that position for a number of years. That's something I think the chamber values," he said.

For someone like Hughes to step in, "spend a couple of years learning the job and then move on perhaps to run for governor or some other higher elected office may not be the most appealing thing from (the chamber's) perspective," Burbank said.

But Hughes also notes that he hasn't been doing himself "any favors if I were looking for a job" with the Salt Lake Chamber this session, citing HB330 (among others), which seeks to undo a longstanding Utah law allowing a person to record a personal conversation or telephone call without telling the other party.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, has said the Salt Lake Chamber contacted him about sponsoring HB330 before the session as a way to protect proprietary business interests. Last week, Snow shelved the bill, saying he wanted to talk more with the business community about the need for it following backlash from several groups.

Chamber officials said they have no specific timetable for when a decision about a new president will be made.