Overstock's Jonathan Johnson tours Utah, hoping to upset Herbert

Saturday , December 19, 2015 - 6:30 AM1 comment

Doug Gibson

Jonathan Johnson, chairman of the board of Overstock.com, is crisscrossing the state. Last week he was in Davis County, conducting town halls in homes, meeting elected officials and talking with the media.

It’s part of his campaign, announced last summer at the Utah Republican Party state convention, to replace Gary Herbert as the Republican governor of Utah. He’s a longshot to topple the popular Herbert, who enjoys high approval ratings. But there’s no Don Quixote in Johnson; he’s assembled a serious campaign, headed by former Republican state chair Dave Hansen, who guided Orrin Hatch and Mia Love through tough campaigns. As he moves through the state, he’s sought a debate with Herbert, but the governor said no, leaving Johnson to settle for highly publicized verbal duels with Democratic State Sen. James Dabakis.

This past week, in a reserved room at the Davis County Library in Layton, Johnson talked with the Standard-Examiner, outlining why he merits the state’s top job.

Herbert, he claims, governs by polls. “That’s why his approval rating is so high,” Johnson said. The Southern California native and BYU law school graduate, outlined what he regards as key differences with the governor.

One is Medicaid expansion. “Healthy Utah, as proposed, was a recipe to bankrupt the state,” Johnson said, referring to the governor’s plan that stalled in the Utah House of Representatives.

A key problem with Utah embracing expansion is that the 10 percent share of costs states will assume isn’t capped, nor are promises secure. Johnson cited Arches, Utah’s nonprofit health insurance coop that recently failed, as a reason to be skeptical. Its failure was the “result of a broken promise” to Arches, which anticipated more money from the feds to cushion losses. It’s unwise for Herbert to place Utah in such a risky situation, Johnson added.

States’ rights, an issue that unites many of Utah’s more conservative pols, is also an issue where Johnson claims disagreement with Herbert. He supports efforts to transfer control of federal lands to Utah. On education, he’s opposed to Common Core and dislikes the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act, touted by supporters as a sensible alternative to No Child Left Behind. 

“To me, it (ESSA) feels like the federal government saying you can go to the ice cream shop and get everything you like, as long as it’s strawberry,” he said. The feds don’t encourage variety or innovation. That’s best left closer to home, he added.

One issue popular in the news that Herbert and Johnson are at odds on is whether to admit Syrian refugees to Utah. Herbert has bucked the stances of other Republican governors, welcoming the refugees. The issue turned controversial after the Paris terrorist attacks. Johnson said he relies on security experts (he won’t name them) that he spoke to recently in Washington D.C. 

“There’s a lot of single, military-aged males” among the refugees, he said, adding that he’s told current vetting is not sufficient.

Johnson supports term limits. “We’re one of 14 states that don’t have terms limits,” he said, adding that the governor should be restricted to the same limits as the U.S. president. Also, if elected, he plans to have Utah Transit Authority board members be elected to office. “Taxpayers have no oversight on UTA,” he said.

Johnson would like to see a more effective, reaching transit system. 

“It serves the spine of the Wasatch Front, but the ribs are not served so well,” he added.

A ‘ROCK-RIBBED REPUBLICAN’

Perusing his campaign website, one doesn’t see the word Republican mentioned often. Nevertheless, Johnson rules out any path other than the Republican nomination. 

“I have no desire to run as an independent. ... I view myself as a conservative, rock-ribbed Republican,” he said.

As a child, he admits to sneaking into Ronald Reagan’s victory celebration in Los Angeles on election night, 1984. The future lawyer served an LDS mission to Japan and used experience gained in the private sector. As a young lawyer in Los Angeles, one of his clients was the Power Rangers brand.

With his wife, Courtney, he’s raised five sons, the oldest 23, the youngest 12. He’s spent about a quarter century in Utah, calling it home the past 17 years. He went to work for Overstock.com more than a decade ago, initially as legal counsel, but rose to CEO.

As an Internet business executive, he has strong positions on tech issues. He supports taxing the Internet, but differs with other pols on how to do it. He favors an origin-based tax rather than destination-based. Having the latter leaves companies and states navigating a complex web of different taxation laws; the former is much simpler and collects about the same amount of revenue, he said.

SUPPORTS UTAH’S CAUCUS SYSTEM

“I like the caucus convention style,” said Johnson, who adds that he doesn’t see extremists at the Republican Party caucuses. He’s a critic of the Count My Vote effort, citing its first-signature clause (which allows only one signature for a candidate) as a major liability. Despite the governor’s strength, he’s confident he can survive the state caucus. He’ll also gather signatures.

“When we poll the current caucus attendees, we like the numbers we see,” Johnson said, although he’s mum on any specifics.

If elected, Johnson plans to make government leaner, which he says is how Overstock.com has been run. “If I see a non-government group providing a service, why should the government be doing it?” he said.

Johnson’s a wealthy man and estimates that $2 million-plus is needed to get elected. “Money’s not going to be a problem,” he said.

The challenger has money to burn. Whether any of it scorches Herbert’s path to another term as governor will be answered in 2016.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.

×