OGDEN — As the economy lurches, hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah gubernatorial hopeful Thomas Wright says he, with his business experience, is the one to get it on track.
And at this stage, bolstering the economy is the priority, in his view.
“My three opponents are from government. They’ve held elected positions for the last 16 years. I’m the business person. I’m the outsider that knows how the economy works,” Wright said Tuesday during a stop in Ogden with Rob Bishop, his pick for lieutenant governor and Utah’s current representative in the 1st District U.S. House seat. “I know how to build businesses. I know the challenges of small businesses. I’m best positioned to help them get people back to work.”
During their visit, Wright and Bishop also zeroed in on the power exercised by Gov. Gary Herbert via executive order in contending with the coronavirus pandemic, calling for checks on such authority.
Wright’s business background has been one of his big selling cards, and he put the focus on that and his plan to get the economy moving again. In his view, the government should put a freeze on hiring and on all but the most urgent capital projects; state and local sales taxes on food should be halted; homeowners who have lost their jobs should be able to get a break on their property taxes; and the state should tap into its reserves, its “rainy day” fund.
“So far, state government has done exactly nothing to give taxpayers relief. We’ve talked all about masks and testing. That’s all really important,” said Wright, alluding to government efforts to fight the coronavirus. “But at some point, we have to address the economic impacts on small businesses and on the 150,000 Utahns who have filed for unemployment.”
Wright, a Republican from Salt Lake City, operates a real estate brokerage firm, Summit Sotheby’s International Realty. He’s got deep roots in the Republican Party, having served as chairperson of the Utah Republican Party and committeeman from Utah on the Republican National Committee. Even so, he’s trailed in polling and faces three heavyweights in Utah politics in the GOP primary on June 30: Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. John Huntsman and Greg Hughes, the former speaker of the Utah House.
Democrat Christopher Peterson and three others, unaffiliated or from smaller parties, are also running, while Herbert, the incumbent, isn’t seeking reelection.
Herbert’s use of executive authority in dealing with COVID-19, notably via implementation of guidelines limiting public movement to prevent the spread of the disease, also garnered the attention of Wright and Bishop.
Leaders need to take a close look at that, Bishop said, to determine if ruling by such executive orders is appropriate for when the next emergency situation inevitably arises. Laws governing issuance of executive orders need to be clarified, he added, and the state legislature needs to be involved in some way “so it’s not just the executive doing things by fiat,” potentially trampling on due process rights.
Similarly, Wright took aim at the use of no-bid contracts by the government in securing assistance from the private sector in dealing with COVID-19. “We can put some guardrails (in). There needs to be a balance of the legislative and executive branches,” he said.
Herbert didn’t necessarily do anything he shouldn’t have, according to Bishop. But he worries the potential for abuse is there. “No one is talking about learning from this experience except for Thomas,” Bishop said.
Both Wright and Bishop attended a May 2 event in Vineyard sponsored by Utah Business Revival. The group has organized such gatherings notwithstanding public health officials’ calls to maintain social distancing to attract attention to what it views as overly stringent COVID-19 restrictions that harm business.
“We can go and act responsibly, and we did,” Wright said. Utah Business Revival is sponsoring a concert in Kaysville on May 30, also to call attention to the issue, and the plans have drawn fire from some in Kaysville who worry it could cause a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Wright, though, calls for a balance between addressing the real dangers of COVID-19 and “preserving and protecting people’s individual freedoms and liberties.”
Bishop, from Brigham City, lamented the lack of Northern Utah representation among the GOP gubernatorial candidates. “I’m sorry, nobody else is even talking about Northern Utah except Thomas Wright,” he said.
Wright, for his part, said the region “needs to be a bigger player at the table and will be in our administration, for sure.”