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Ex-Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes launches bid for governor

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Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes announces his run for governor at Dee’s Automotive in Millcreek on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

MILLCREEK — Describing himself as fighter who loves to be told he can’t accomplish something, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes launched his long-expected bid for governor Wednesday at a State Street auto repair shop.

“I am in this garage because I feel like I’m the everyday guy,” Hughes said, standing inside Dee’s Automotive Service, a business started by immigrants from Vietnam and where he has taken his cars since his early 20s. “This is Utah to me.”

About 100 friends, family, conservative current and former state lawmakers, rural county commissioners and other supporters joined Hughes in one of the shop’s bays for his announcement.

Hughes called Utah the envy of the nation with its strong economy, growing workforce and great quality of life. But state leaders can’t rest on their laurels because the future doesn’t write itself, he said.

Quoting Steve Jobs, Hughes said if you want to make everybody happy don’t be a leader, sell ice cream.

“I don’t sell ice cream,” he said.

Hughes, 50, served 16 years in the Utah House, including two terms as speaker from 2015 to 2018. He announced he would not seek reelection to the Legislature just before the 2018 general session, fueling speculation he would seek another office.

Hughes was a driving force behind Operation Rio Grande, the joint state and local government project to reduce crime in downtown Salt Lake City areas frequented by homeless people, and to provide better services to curb homelessness. He also brought opposing sides together on issues such as medical marijuana and justice reform. As speaker, he spurned efforts to expand Medicaid in Utah despite political pressure.

Amy Daeschel, who was homeless and addicted to drugs, said rarely does a person rally community leaders and politicians because somebody’s life matters.

“I am one of those people he saved,” she said.

An amateur boxer who grew up with a single mother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Hughes said his experiences inform his decision-making. He is admittedly impatient. His hard-charging style sometimes rubs people the wrong way. He said he won’t tell people what they want to hear but will tell the truth.

“This is what you get out of me. Without apology, without complaint it is true that my public image has been misunderstood,” he said.

Former GOP lawmaker Mike Noel described Hughes as the “real deal” and a “humble” person. “Sometimes you don’t think that, but believe me he is,” Noel said.

Hughes enters a packed Republican field looking to replace GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, who isn’t seeking reelection. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, businessman Jeff Burningham, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., and former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright are in the race.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who is not running again for the 1st Congressional District seat he’s held since 2003, is seriously considering the race. Democrat Nikki R. Pino has declared an intent to gather signatures to get on the ballot, and Democrat Zachery Moses has also said he’s a candidate.

Hughes acknowledged winning the GOP nomination will be hard given the slate of candidates. “But guess what else? It’s a two-way street. It just got harder with me getting in this race,” he said.

Unlike the other Republican candidates, Hughes said he will not gather signatures to get on the GOP primary election ballot but strive to win the nomination in the state convention.

“If I were to get signatures it would mean that I’m afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get through a cycle like that, and I hate making decisions based on fear,” he said.

Since he started to raise money in his personal political action committee last spring, Hughes Leadership PAC, the former speaker has collected $476,000, including $100,000 each from Democrat Kem Gardner and Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, both developers. Hughes is in the real estate development and property management business.

Hughes identified growth, transportation and water among the challenges facing Utah. He said he understands the public apprehension over the tax reform package lawmakers passed last month. He said the governor should have made the case to the public to increase understanding of what the legislation does and doesn’t do.

“I’m out in the cheap seats now. I’m not a legislator. I was having a difficult time tracking it. I don’t think tax reform can be done in a way where you develop the public trust when you don’t have people really understanding what those thing are,” he said.

Still, Hughes said he doesn’t support the referendum to repeal the new tax law. He said he doesn’t like “selective outrage” and that he prefers elected representatives make laws.

An unabashed early supporter of President Donald Trump in Utah, Hughes’ name came up as a possible administration appointee after the 2016 election. Trump nicknamed him “The Original” during his visit to Utah in December 2017. Hughes said he continues to trust the president.

Hughes moved to Utah to work on a political campaign after serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He attended Utah Valley State College and BYU. He and his wife, Krista, are the parents of three children.