OGDEN — Thomas Wright, one of the Republican hopefuls in the Utah gubernatorial race, has never been elected to public office.
In his view, though, that’s a plus, because he would bring a different perspective to the Capitol, based on his business and volunteer experience. He now serves on the Utah State Board of Regents, which helps set policies related to higher education, and he’s served as chairman of the Utah Republican Party, among other volunteer posts.
“We’re at a point where we need a strong executive branch in the state, with a new face and a fresh perspective,” he said Wednesday. “Having never held elected office and not being from government, I think I’m uniquely qualified as a business person who’s trained to lead and manage to anticipate some of Utah’s coming problems and to tackle them in a new and creative and innovative way.”
Wright is one of several candidates vying to replace Gov. Gary Herbert, who’s not seeking reelection. He traveled to Ogden for a campaign stop and spoke with the Standard-Examiner on the campus of Weber State University. The other candidates he’ll be vying with for the GOP nomination include Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton and Greg Hughes, former speaker of the Utah House.
Among the big issues, in Wright’s view, are addressing educational issues, notably the shortage of teachers in Utah, and adjusting to and preparing for ongoing growth. Wright, from Salt Lake City, operates a real estate brokerage firm, Summit Sotheby’s International Realty.
Local school officials make the key decisions about how schools run. But the state can help, he said, by bringing the varied players in the realm together.
“We’ve got to have a strong new vision from the executive branch, somebody with a fresh face who can bring state school board, the legislature and all the shareholders together to solve that problem collectively,” Wright said.
Education is big for him, and the desire to help shape policy governing Utah schools is what propelled him to first run for office in 2006, when he vied unsuccessfully for a Utah House seat. Though he lost, the experience motivated him to get more involved, leading to his leadership posts first with the Salt Lake County Republican Party and then, from 2011 to 2013, the Utah Republican Party. He’s also winding down a term as committeeman from Utah on the Republican National Committee.
Growth requires attention to transportation, air quality and housing issues, among other things, and he touts expansion of the FrontRunner commuter train to help address road congestion and, by taking cars off the roads, pollution. The Utah Transit Authority bus system could also become more nimble, perhaps by utilizing smaller buses that travel further and stop more frequently than some of the larger buses now in use.
Tackling the lack of affordable housing — “a crisis,” he maintains — is another facet of dealing with growth. Working with cities and locales to encourage higher-density development would be one means of addressing that.
“You never want to take local control away from municipalities. I never advocate that as governor. But again, I think it’s about sitting down with people and aligning our interests and helping motivate municipalities where it makes sense to increase the density of housing,” he said. “Certainly never be heavy handed. But the greatest challenge with affordable housing is usually the not-in-my-backyard mentality. We need to overcome that stigma and motivate local municipalities to build affordable housing.”
‘NOT THE UTAH WAY’
Wright has his concerns with the overhaul to the tax system approved by Utah lawmakers during a one-day special session last December. As he sees it, the process was rushed, the measure didn’t get the full vetting it merited.
The public didn’t see the final version of the measure “until it was passed,” he said. “It would have been nice to see that and to have talked about that prior, and that’s what I would bring different. As the governor, I would not have called the special session until I would have seen the bill and taken it to people and gotten their feedback.”
There are elements that he views as positive, like the cut in the income tax rate. But he’s not a fan of the controversial provision raising the reduced state sales tax on food to the full state rate, from 1.75% to 4.85%, because of the impact it would have on lower-income Utahns. Such action “is not the Utah way,” underscored by the opposition from many it’s generated, and lawmakers, instead, should have sought the funds generated by the tax hike elsewhere.
Instead of pursuing such a massive overhaul as called for in the reform measure, he would appoint a citizen’s advisory committee to make tax policy recommendations to the legislature. “We need to do these things incrementally every year, so that they’re thoughtful, they’re easy to digest and they represent the views of the people.”
While he respects those who are petitioning to let voters weigh in on the tax overhaul via a referendum on the November ballot, that route worries him. Rather, he favors action via the ballot box to elect or remove those officials who voters support and oppose.