Guv hopeful Johnson: I'm leading Herbert among state delegates

Thursday , March 03, 2016 - 6:28 AM9 comments

DOUG GIBSON, Standard-Examiner Staff

BRIGHAM CITY — Republican gubernatorial hopeful Jonathan Johnson had a message for the roughly two dozen gathered Tuesday night, in a cozy downstairs den in this small Top of Utah city, to hear his stump speech and a question-and-answer session: I’m outpolling Gary Herbert among Republican state delegates, he said.

Johnson’s not providing more details, and Governor Herbert would certainly disagree with his Republican challenger’s claim. But if Johnson, chairman of the board at — who eschews signature-gathering for the traditional caucus-convention route to nomination — surprises with a strong showing at the party convention this spring, it will largely be due to hour-long town hall meetings like the one in Brigham City. Sasha Clark, Johnson’s communications director, says the campaign has been meeting in homes across the state for the past 19 months, with no plans to stop.

In Brigham City, before a mostly Republican audience, Johnson, speaking in his familiar raspy voice – one that recalls the late Andy Devine – positioned himself as a conservative alternative to Herbert. Issues mentioned included education, Medicaid expansion and a planned lawsuit to sue the feds for oversight of state lands.

Johnson told attendees that Herbert has failed to address those issues, supporting Common Core standards, backing a Medicaid expansion contingent on federal requirements and procrastinating a promise to litigate for state autonomy over lands.

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“The federal government likes to expand its power. The states don’t say ’no’ enough,” Johnson said. With education, he told attendees “a menu of different standards” should be available for local districts to choose. The menu could even include a Common Core-type offering, but it must be the local district deciding what’s best, not Washington D.C. or Salt Lake City.

On the public lands issue, Johnson said that deadlines to sue over the lands have come and gone. “The dates have come and gone. I’m not afraid to bring that suit and I will bring that suit,” he said. Access to public lands, as well as economic productivity, will improve with the lands under state control, he added.

Term limits is another issue Johnson told attendees he supports. Because there’s no term limits, he argued, Utah has become a state in which long-serving governors have essentially passed the baton to their lieutenant governors.

“I will put a term limits (proposal) through the Legislature in 2017,” he said, in order for a public vote to amend the state constitution can occur.

The majority of the town hall meeting was spent answering questions. Jeff Scott, Box Elder County commissioner, asked Johnson for his take on the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a state effort to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates in prisons and jails. Scott told Johnson that costs to implement the program have exceeded funding, making it an “unfunded mandate.” 

DeAnna Hardy, of Brigham City, told Johnson that excessive taxation is also a local problem, claiming that city and county governments have added taxes locally. Johnson replied he’s ”not focused on telling counties what to do,” but stressed the need to be thrifty and promised that, if elected governor, he would not raise taxes.

Answering questions on education, Johnson said state control of lands is a better monetary source than a tax increase. He hopes to “reallocate slices of the pie,” reducing waste and energize a statewide volunteer effort at schools. “The answer can’t always be more money, more money,” he said, comparing it to filling water in a bucket full of holes.

Johnson concluded the town hall with a plea for attendees to get politically active. “I need you on March 22,” he said, asking attendees to go to their caucuses, run for state delegate and support him for governor at the party convention. He won’t gather signatures, a step that that Governor Herbert is doing.

If paying thousands of dollars for companies to gather signatures becomes the preferred path to a nomination, it will mean the end of candidates coming to towns and cities and spending time with voters in homes, Johnson said.

Those attending said they considered the time spent valuable. ”I’m here to learn,“ said Scott Nelson, a local Republican precinct chairman. 

”I’m not too happy with Herbert,“ Ruth Jensen, a member of the Brigham City council, said. She cited dissatisfaction with some state agencies, including the Utah Department of Transportation and the Utah Transit Authority.

Both Jensen and Nelson said they remain undecided on whom to support for governor. Kitty Dunn is a supporter of Johnson. She, along with her husband Mike, hosted the meeting. ”I’ve been impressed with his vision for Utah, which is a forward vision,“ she said, citing Johnson’s stance on local-based education decisions.

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