WASHINGTON TERRACE — As he’s toured the state, gubernatorial hopeful Greg Hughes, former speaker of the Utah House, has been banging the drum for the proposed inland port initiative.

It ranks high on his list of priorities, maybe at the top, and it would spur the state’s economy, said Hughes, one of several Republicans hoping to replace Gov. Gary Herbert, who isn’t seeking reelection. Notably, he envisions it bolstering development in some of the more rural areas of the state that haven’t experienced the sort of go-go growth that’s typified the state’s metropolitan cluster in Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties.

Indeed, his goal if he wins would be to have the first of several inland ports around the state operating within two years of taking office.

“What we’re really talking about is a system of inland ports around the state, not just one single solitary location. That would allow for the state of Utah to see some economic opportunities that are not just solely within four counties,” he told the Standard-Examiner during a campaign stop in Washington Terrace. The notion has generated strong opposition among some in Salt Lake County, but Hughes envisions a more far-flung system of air, rail and road transshipment points in less-developed areas of the state.

As he’s stumped for support, Hughes, who dubs himself “Utah’s conservative candidate,” has also zeroed in on his support of President Donald Trump. As speaker, Hughes was an early supporter of Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign, helping get him to visit Utah, and that backing has continued. A Hughes ad features a picture of Trump at en event in the Utah Capitol pointing at Hughes, who’s smiling back, pumping a fist.

The other Republican hopefuls also have expressed support for Trump. “But I’m leading with that. I’m making that a very transparent position, more so than the other candidates,” said Hughes, a state representative from 2003-2018 and speaker from 2015-2018. He likes Trump’s “bluntness,” he said, and focused praise on the president’s selection of judges and U.S. Supreme Court justices, the tax cuts pushed by his administration and the president’s moves to return power to states.

Hughes, a real estate developer from Draper, is one of eight GOPers and 13 candidates in all who have filed paperwork with the state indicating plans to seek the governor’s spot. At stake in the contest is the sort of direction Utah takes at least through 2024, when the next gubernatorial term ends, and Hughes is working on a quick schedule. He’ll be seeking nomination to the GOP primary ballot at the Utah Republican Party state convention on April 25 and, as such, needs to drum up support among the party stalwarts who’ll make the call at that gathering.

Several others vying for governor — though not Hughes — are also seeking a place on the June 30 primary ballot via signatures on petitions. If they’re successful, they won’t necessarily need backing at the convention, at least to get their names on the ballot.

The other Republican gubernatorial hopefuls include Jeff Burningham, Spencer Cox, Jan Garbett, Jon Huntsman, Aimee Winder Newton, Thomas Wright and Jason Christensen. Also running, according to filings with state election officials, are Democrats Zachary Moses, Mark Smith, Christopher Peterson and Nikki Pino, plus Gregory Duerden of the Independent American Party.

‘GROWING THE ECONOMIC PIE’

Parallel to his enthusiastic support for the inland port initiative, Hughes emphasizes that he doesn’t favor new taxes, that he’s a backer a supply-side economics. Spurring growth and expansion of the economic base will generate the tax revenue needed, without having to bolster rates. That’s a point he brought out at a town hall meeting on Thursday at the Pleasant Valley Branch library in Washington Terrace following his meeting with the Standard-Examiner.

“I’m not raising taxes. I don’t think we need to. I’m growing the economic pie,” he told the assembled group of about 20.

Inland ports, he maintains, would create “this ecosystem of an economy,” drawing other manufacturers that would serve the facilities. The ports, as he envisions it, would potentially connect via rail to seaports on the West Coast, creating a more efficient means of transporting incoming goods to be shipped around the United States and shipping goods made regionally to other markets.

Stylistically, Hughes said he’s not afraid of taking controversial stands, taking political heat. “I got battle scars head to toe,” he said.

At the same time, he said he’s willing and able to work with others across the political spectrum. “I’m a conservative, but as a policy maker I know you can find common ground on critical issues facing the state and you can see progress. We’re not Washington, D.C. We’re not stuck with people just talking past one another,” he said.

As a member of the Utah House, he singled out his efforts to implement tax reform in the late 2000s, to support military veterans and to launch Operation Rio Grande. Via Operation Rio Grande, authorities cleared an area of Salt Lake City that had become overrun with drug addicts and the homeless, aiming to direct the displaced to programs and service providers that could help them.

Kris Lewis of Washington Terrace attended Thursday’s town hall meeting and lauded Hughes. “He’s a solid conservative that has always shown that he will stand against the liberalism advancing in our state. I’m for that,” Lewis said.

Marilyn Liljenquist also attended, trying to get more information on the gubernatorial hopefuls as the race picks up. “I just wanted to come and see what he stood for,” she said.

The general election is Nov. 3.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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