Politics in Utah can be as variable as spring weather. Here are some forecasts as the tulips sprout and the political season kicks off. Utah is losing its top two legislative leaders this year. What will be the legacy and future of retiring House Speaker Greg Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser?
Pignanelli: "Politics, like theater, is one of those things where you've got to be wise enough to know when to leave." — Gov. Richard Lamm
These two public servants, with very different backgrounds and personalities, achieved incredible political success. Furthermore, their diverse approach sustains my long-held belief regarding the different characteristics between Utah-born Mormons and those raised elsewhere.
Niederhauser, in a deliberative manner, fostered changes that will dramatically impact state government for decades. Compelling efficiencies in regulation, taxation and economic development are hallmarks of his influence. Hopefully, a governor will tap his skills to lead an effort to recommend needed changes to the higher education system. Regardless, Niederhauser will be remembered as a great president.
Hughes arrived in Utah a young whirlwind and never stopped spinning. With flashes of temper, passion and charm, he instilled classic conservative principles into legislative arguments. Yet Hughes laid the legislative groundwork to help parents of autistic children. This compassionate and practical side to his nature was revealed to the entire state last year through efforts to eliminate criminal activity and homelessness in Salt Lake City. Hughes’ political career is not over, and he is a likely governor candidate in 2020. But grateful Utahns will recall Hughes as the speaker who — through force of personality — pacified and rehabilitated downtown.
Niederhauser and Hughes set a new standard for future presidents and speakers. I appreciate their leadership, and conclusively proving my amateur sociological theory regarding personality differences between native and transplanted Utahns. (I'm expecting a call from the Nobel Prize committee)
Webb: Neiderhauser and Hughes are very different in temperament and style — but both are very effective and have served the state well. Neiderhauser is understated, common-sense and dignified, but was always looking to the future, determined to position Utah for long-term success. He focused on infrastructure needed to cope with rapid growth, and sponsored legislation to ensure future mobility. He was also resolute in seeing that the Senate won its share of fights with the House.
Hughes is a vocal and emotional street fighter, but he doesn’t (usually) go over the edge into bullying. With his forceful focus on homelessness, his leadership at the Utah Transit Authority and his passion battling the opioid crisis, he revealed nuances and complexities that defy the usual stereotype of a right-wing ideological conservative.
I’m hopeful Niederhauser will at some point want to return to the public arena. Hughes clearly wants to run for governor and will likely be a strong competitor in a crowded field. Many other lawmakers have announced retirements. How will this affect the elections and the future of the Legislature?
Pignanelli: Most freshman legislators in 2019 will have garnered signatures to be on the nomination primary ballot, with some participation in the delegate/convention system. Furthermore, these newcomers utilize social media at greater levels.
Candidates who secured their nomination through signatures are less strident in tone, yet demanding of efficiencies in the government process. Thus, vacancies open opportunities for moderate Democrats and Republicans — changing how the Legislature deliberates and communicates.
Webb: The turnover is about average, but some colorful characters are leaving. But, never fear, no shortage exists of interesting personalities who are attracted to politics. Senior lawmakers are already maneuvering to secure enough caucus votes for top leadership positions. Watch Sen. Stuart Adams and Rep. Brad Wilson as they seek to ascend to the top. As expected, a federal appeals court upheld SB54, which means candidates can collect signatures or use the caucus/convention system, or do both, to qualify for the primary election ballot. Will Republican hardliners continue appeals, possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court?
Pignanelli: The activists will request a hearing to the entire Court of Appeals and then the Supreme Court — all will be denied. They would consider taking their cause to the United Nations — but hate that organization.
Webb: If the far right’s wealthy benefactor grants them more money (so much for their criticism of big money in politics), they might appeal. In the meantime, all candidates should ignore the machinations and dictates of the Central Committee and feel secure in gathering signatures to get on the ballot.
As I’ve written previously, should the hardliners ever win in court (very unlikely), the Republican Party as we know it will be wrecked. Mainstream Republicans will never return exclusively to the outdated caucus/convention system. They would leave en masse, and Utah’s Grand Old Party would be a shriveled skeleton of its former self.