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Jeff Burningham, Utah governor candidate: ‘It’s time to bring game-changing leadership to Utah’ (+podcast)

Republican Jeff Burningham waves to the crowd of supporters and media after announcing his candidacy for Utah governor on the steps of the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.
Republican Jeff Burningham waves to the crowd of supporters and media after announcing his candidacy for Utah governor on the steps of the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It’s been edited for clarity.

“Therefore, What?” is a podcast that breaks down the news while breaking down barriers, challenges you and the status quo, explores timely topics and timeless principles, and leaves you confident to face what’s next. I’m Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, and this is “Therefore, What?”

Boyd Matheson: Very excited today to be joined by the newest entrant into the governor’s race, Jeff Burningham.

Jeff Burningham: Thanks, Boyd, for having me on.

BM: So obviously a big day for you, a lot of things going on as you’ve laid out a vision. A lot of people in the state of Utah don’t know you super well, other than your business experience. So, why do this and what’s the vision?

JB: Yeah, we’re at a critical juncture here in Utah right now. It’s an important time. And I believe that it’s time to bring game-changing leadership to Utah. Utah is poised to step onto the world stage, to shape our own destiny in a way that hasn’t been possible before. But in order to do that, we need an innovative outsider a job-creating entrepreneur, to capture this moment, and I’m excited about that opportunity.

BM: Oh, that’s great. As you thought about this, obviously, this is a big decision for you for your family, business. There’s all of those different ramifications. Tell us just a little bit about that process. What was that decision-making process like for you?

JB: It was not an easy decision. Sally, my wife, is not someone who seeks the spotlight. I have four children at home, actually, my oldest just went to the MTC a week ago. So three children still at home. It was not an easy decision. But what drove it was this desire to serve. It’s this belief that Utah is poised for greatness, that we need bold leadership in order to achieve that. And I’m excited to be an outside voice in this gubernatorial race. It looks like there’ll be a lot of politicians. I am the political outsider in the race.

BM: Yeah. We often say that every campaign is not about what is or what was, but what’s next. And so from your perspective, what’s next?

JB: Yeah, absolutely. I said today on the Capitol steps, this campaign, this election is not about yesterday’s ideas, or today’s status quo. It’s all about tomorrow’s opportunity. So what’s next for Utah is a slimmed-down government that’s more responsive to our constituent customers. I would love to have a head of user experience in my administration. It’s crazy that we’re on the verge of driverless cars, but we still wait for hours in line at the DMV to renew our driver’s license, right? That just doesn’t make sense. And I don’t think it will last. Government is broken. The way to change it is to change the way we’re thinking about that.

Members of the campaign fill the steps behind Republican Jeff Burningham as he announces his candidacy for Utah governor on the steps of the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.
Members of the campaign fill the steps behind Republican Jeff Burningham as he announces his candidacy for Utah governor on the steps of the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

BM: So I want to ask you the one question that I would ask every candidate when I was a chief of staff, I got to be the gatekeeper for a lot of candidates who were looking for endorsements. And one question I would always ask is ... this is a hard thing. Going through a campaign is brutal. It’s awful. It’s painful, you expose, you’re vulnerable in so many ways. Your family’s exposed to all of the different throws of the media. And so the question is this, what is it about this that is going to make it all worth it? To make all the headache and the heartache and all the the challenges and traumas of a campaign? What’s going to make it worth it even if you run and lose?

JB: Yeah, it’s a good question. Obviously, we’ve considered all those things, we’re a bit naive. But to do anything great, you need a bit of naivete, you don’t know what’s in front of you. What would make it all worth it for me is if Utah stepped onto the world stage, showed the rest of the country a model for modern conservatism. Here’s what modern conservatism looks like, here’s how you do it. Here’s how you do it in a slimmed down fashion in a fiscally responsible fashion. And we are leading the way in that regard, that would make it worth it. If people Utah works, more excited to interact with government had a better experience, that would all make it worth it to me.

Also, if I could just add, again, we have three children in public schools. We need to modernize our education system. If Utah could lead out in education, and I think there is the will to do that, that would be enormously gratifying to me, I think it would change Utah forever.

BM: Yeah. Now I’m gonna give you the flip side of that question. And that is that you do win — you win, you take over the governorship. I’ve always said the most dangerous day in the life of a business or an organization is the day you’re successful. Utah has had great success over the last couple of decades. But that makes some of us nervous about what’s next and how you attack that. So as the chief executive of the state, how do you lead that so that our success doesn’t become the beginning of our downfall?

JB: Yeah, I think that’s a great point, the best time to disrupt yourself is when things are going well, because you’re at the top of the curve and actually going down, but you do not know that yet. That’s, I think, where Utah is.

Two ideas: No. 1, there’s been a lot of talk about tax restructuring, raising taxes, etc. I think we need to, No. 1, day 1, I do a top to bottom audit of the state government and look at ways where we’re inefficient and where there’s maybe waste. And I would look to cut. I do not believe that Utah has a revenue problem. We may have a spending problem, as Utah’s economy has been on a tear, entrepreneurs have created tens of thousands of jobs for the state. Our state government has also grown with it, and it doesn’t have to be like that. So one. The second idea. I want to free up government workers to think differently, to think innovatively. And again, think of ways that we can serve the taxpayer to be more customer-centric in that way. And I think that starts from the top down. I think that starts with an innovative outsider that will bring game-changing leadership to Utah: a new way of thinking about old and entrenched problems that we’ve face for a long time. Yeah.

Republican Jeff Burningham, right, embraces his son Truman Burningham, 15, after announcing his candidacy for Utah governor on the steps of the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.
Republican Jeff Burningham, right, embraces his son Truman Burningham, 15, after announcing his candidacy for Utah governor on the steps of the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

BM: As you’re introducing yourself to the people of the state of Utah, you’ve been doing that for a few months now, as you’ve been traveling about, what have you learned from the people of Utah in that process?

JB: Yeah, it’s been a blessing and just awesome to travel the state. We’ve been to all 29 counties, had almost 200 political meetings over the last eight months, 8,000 miles. The people of Utah are the secret sauce in Utah. It’s not our government leaders. It’s the people of Utah. That is where it’s at, No. 1. No. 2, obviously, we have a beautiful state, which is fun. One of the things I’ve learned or that’s been most surprising to me, is the heavy hand of federal government in rural Utah. They are impacted more by that than we ever are here in urban Utah. My conviction after traveling to all 29 counties is that rural Utah needs a fighter in their corner. And I intend to be that fighter.

BM: What’s the one thing that you would hope the people of Utah would think about you? As they get to know you a little bit know your family know your business background and your vision for the state, what’s the one thing you hope they learned about you as a person in this process?

JB: I hope they trust my intentions. I have no other intent here except to ... we become so cynical, for maybe good reason. But I am doing this to try to represent the innovative outsiders in the state. The job-creating entrepreneurs that I think have built this state, they built the most diversified economy in the country. I’m representing them. So I’d like people to know my heart, that it’s in the right place, that I have a desire to serve. And that this type of innovative thinking can make a difference here in Utah. I would say Utah, come with me. Let’s see where we can go. I’m talking about game-changing leadership. And I mean it. Let’s see what game-changing leadership means for the state. Again, I think we are poised to shape our own destiny and step onto the world stage. That’s an exciting proposition for all of us. Let’s go do it.

BM: OK. And with that, we will wrap this up — the beginning of many conversations I’m sure we’ll have in the days and weeks ahead. And we as we wrap this up, Jeff, this, this is sort of the the end of the beginning. You’ve made the announcement, you’re officially in the race, and we wish you great success and luck and an important conversation for the people of the state of Utah. Thanks for being with us today.

JB: Thank you so much Boyd. Looking forward to talking more.

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