- Derek Carlisle
It wasn't so long ago that Gov. Gary Herbert was being bothered by a pair of kidney stones.
This uncomfortable malady became all of our business when the governor underwent surgery on the afternoon of Jan. 26 to have the stones removed and, one imagines, summarily tossed into the nearest trash bin. (We're pleased to report that by all accounts the operation was a success and he is recovering.) While under the knife, though, Herbert relinquished control of the governorship—and preppers and pessimists were no doubt embracing for the rudderless state to devolve into the type of anarchy that usually only manifests on Interstate 15 between 7200 South and Lehi every weekday during rush hour.
Actually, before Herbert left for the hospital, he officially ceded control to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who used his elevated platform to tweet out a series of goofy proclamations, including one that demanded Wyoming alter its border to #MakeUtahRectangularAgain. So, it was kinda crazy.
It's moments like that, where an elected leader is temporarily relieved of his duties, when one's mind starts to inquire: Who's got the kidney and the stones to be the next governor?
Without worries about term limits, Herbert probably could enjoy smashing defeats at the polls in perpetuity or until his batteries run out, and he's shipped back to the Utah County warehouse that manufactured him.
But let's not allow Herbert's popularity to stop us from speculating who will be the next contestant to occupy the Governor's Mansion. In the world of politics, after all, the jockeying for a rung on the political ladder is appreciably more fun to spectate than day-to-day governance.
The reality is, who knows if Herbert is going anywhere. He seems to enjoy signing bills, making monthly KUED 7 appearances, swatting Sharknado sharks with his Andre Agassi tennis racket, acclaiming Utah's economy and standing his ground at the cost of lucrative outdoor retailer conventions.
By the time the 2020 election dawns, it's worth noting, Herbert will have been in office for more than 11 years—the second-longest gubernatorial tenure in Utah history.
That is if he lasts until 2020. Maybe President Donald Trump will ask Herbert to fill an advisory role once Jared Kushner is voted off Trump Island. Probably not, though, meaning Herbert won't be added to the list of a few recent Utah governors who were poached by sitting U.S. presidents for new assignments. Herb's predecessor, Jon Huntsman Jr., let's remember, was selected by President Barack Obama in 2009 to serve as ambassador to China before a feeble White House bid in 2012. And in 2003, Gov. Mike Leavitt was appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency (and later the Department of Health & Human Services) by President George W. Bush. Gov. Olene Walker, the state's first and only woman governor, served out the rest of Leavitt's term but was rejected by the GOP nominating convention.
Nowadays, whenever a high-profile Republican shifts a little in their seat, the rumor mill sputters to life, and there's been a lot of revving lately. Is this guy positioning himself for a gubernatorial bid? Oh, but what about him? We collectively ponder.
So, yeah. It's 2018 and we've still got a midterm election in November, but do you think that's going to dissuade City Weekly from looking ahead to 2020? Not as long as next-in-liners keep announcing they are ready for a new chapter.
Who's a possibility? To paraphrase Natalie Portman, here's a list of the all-white, male contenders (plus a yellow one).
House Speaker Greg Hughes
Why? There is nothing in the rulebook that mandates Hughes wade neck-deep into Utah's homeless situation. And yet, the house speaker set up shop near the shelter on Rio Grande Street, where he witnessed drug dealers brazenly sell narcotics while blending in with the state's most vulnerable individuals. So he put his foot down and teamed up with the city and the county in a sweep inspirationally dubbed Operation Rio Grande. Hughes often says that homelessness is not a problem isolated to Salt Lake City, but instead is a burden the entire state must shoulder. If that doesn't sound like a phrase to add to an executive résumé, nothing will. When Hughes announced 2018 would be his last year in the House, he was asked if that meant he had grander political aspirations. Rope-a-doping around the question like the seasoned politician he is, Hughes offered a non-answer answer. But he left what felt like a clue: state government, he said, sounds more appealing than being a cog in Washington.
Why not? Hughes was one of the first Utah Republicans to eagerly support Donald Trump's presidency. That's fine. Let a guy vote for whom he wishes, but Utah, despite being redder than a Soviet strawberry, is lukewarm to the current GOP ringleader, and Hughes' association might turn out to be an anchor. Consider the last three Republican presidential candidates: 62 percent of the state voted for John McCain in 2008; 72 percent voted for Mitt Romney in 2012; and only 45 percent of the vote went to Hughes' guy, Trump.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox
Why? Everybody seems to like this guy. Probably because Cox is great at reading a room. He's equal parts humble, whimsical and stately. Not one for partisan squabbles, Cox is certainly a peacemaker. And the path leading from lieutenant governor to governor is a natural progression. This much we know: prominent members of Cox' party were nudging him to run for higher office. Cox admitted as much on Twitter when he announced that after prayer and family meetings, he had decided not to run for Orrin Hatch's soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat. It's hard to imagine that same group of shadow kingmakers isn't coaxing Cox to run the state. We also know that while Herbert was incapacitated last month, Cox ran the show, and in the aftermath the Great Salt Lake is still salty and doTERRA is still hosting its convention in the state.
Why not? He might not want it. Cox likes to say that he hopes to one day return to farm-life in Fairview, where one imagines he rests his feet on a porch banister, tips a Stetson low over his eyes and chews on a wheat blade as woke crickets serenade him to sleep. Or where he grumbles to himself as he watches the Jazz on TV. Whichever.
Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz
Why? It's all in the (domain) name. When Chaffetz announced that he would be stepping down from his seat in Congress less than six months after his 2016 re-election to spend more time with his family, everyone tried to figure out why he was really leaving. Turns out, it was to appear on Fox News, but all the rooting around uncovered that a few conspicuous internet addresses rerouted you to Chaffetz' congressional site, implying his team registered them. Chaffetz is also a staunch conservative, and a considerable chunk of the electorate likes those credentials.
Why not? If the salvo at Chaffetz' last congressional town hall meeting is any indication of how the other faction of the electorate will react to his public appearances, they might be hoarse before he's officially sworn in. Then-congressman Chaffetz, who chaired a powerful oversight committee and had committed himself to finding a Benghazi scandal and then linking it to Hillary Clinton, lost his steam when she lost the election while some waited for Chaffetz to pursue Comrade Trump with the same gusto.
Gov. Gary Herbert
Why? Because he's Gary Effing Herbert, that's why. Eleven years? Big deal, get Guinness to the Beehive because Herb could break the gubernatorial record (12 years) if he wants. From humble beginnings as a Utah County commissioner who was plucked from political obscurity to serve as lieutenant governor by Huntsman Jr., Herbert undoubtedly looks back at his reign with a satisfactory sense of pride. If the 2016 GOP delegate vote is any indication, support for Herbert is slipping among the right-wing in his party. But for moderates, that could be a plus. Herbert took over as America slowed into a Great Recession, and Utah wasn't immune. More than a decade later, however, the state's economy is humming.
Why not? Herbert has some 'splainin' to do: Why, for starters, was he unable to secure Medicaid expansion? An estimated 100,000 Utahns fell into a coverage gap while Herbert was head of the state. Herbert also had to wipe egg from his face after tape surfaced of the governor asking campaign donors for money and then telling them that they'd have his ear, labeling himself a regular "Available Jones." More like "Quid Pro Quo Jones," right?
Sen. Orrin Hatch
Why? What do you call a senator who's spent more than four decades writing patriotic songs when he isn't passing bills? You call him to the governor's mansion, perhaps? Borin' Orrin, as he's known to the barflies at a downtown dive, isn't as spry as he once was. But who is? Hatch has name recognition up the wazoo, he's got friends in the right places and imagine how annoyed he'd make The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board, which recently suggested it was time Hatch left the public arena, only to have him jab his way into Herbert's chair, invisible reading glasses and all.
Why not? History is on his side, as Hatch was born when the Holy Roman Empire ruled the roost, or thereabouts. Also: If you're in the pro-Bears Ears camp, Hatch is almost wholly to blame for its downsizing. He was the one who incessantly nagged the president and asked for its undoing.
President Russell M. Nelson
Why? Why not? Let's go full on theocracy. Marry the church and the state like it was a heterosexual, monogamous (post-1890) groom and the bride of his choosing. There's no better adviser than the man upstairs, and Nelson has him on speed dial. Plus, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has experience administering a 10 percent flat-tax, building things, managing welfare reserves and PR spin after insiders leak documents. Win-win.
Why not? Say "So long!" to drinking coffee and driving, or Sunday morning brunch, or blaspheming under your breath as you huff up the hill to the Capitol. Amen.
The Democratic Field
Why? As we near 2020, the Democratic Party will publicly galvanize their base and prop up their candidate and hope for a miracle. Who will that nominee be? Last election, Mike Weinholtz held his own against Herbert, until, that is, poll results started coming in. Salt Lake County Councilor Jenny Wilson is eyeing a U.S. Senate seat, so the 2020 election might be a short turnaround after 2018. Former 3rd District House candidate Dr. Kathie Allen isn't running for a statewide seat until gerrymandering is fixed ... or something. Similarly, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams is gunning for Rep. Mia Love.
Why Not? Democrats are understandably annoyed when they aren't taken seriously as possible victors in statewide elections. With that said, even if you abstain from hot drinks you can read these tea leaves. The last time a member of their party elected a governor was in 1977.
Salt Lake Bees Mascot "Bumble"
Why? Bumble gets it. He knows that Utahns still yearn for the great American pastime that is B-lining it to the closest hotdog-rotating concession stand. And he's an ambassador for minor league baseball, too. But the real draw is that Bumble is a bug of the people. The Bees recently announced a promotion that entails Bumble delivering Valentine's Day gifts called Bumblegrams (yeah, yeah ...) to loved ones. Don't we deserve a governor who won't shy away from his constituents, who will take to the pavement, who will spread the spoils, even if he is an insect?
Why not? Can anyone say they know the real Bumble? His bulbous opaque eyes are emblematic of Bumble's shrouded anonymity. How do we even know those Valentine's Day deliveries will reach beloved sweethearts and not clandestine paramours. Plus, he's a plush insect.
While we're at it, wouldn't it be fascinating to dissect all the viable candidates who are possible replacements for Sen. Hatch in the Senate?! A list that includes Mitt Romney and ... well ...
Why? Utah loves The Mitt. Savior of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, former Massachusetts governor, a rich but wholesome businessman, what's not to like? Even that photo of Romney looking like a hostage victim sitting next to Trump while they dine on French cuisine doesn't diminish Romney's charm. All these guys are members of the Mormon faith, but Romney seems to embody the popular Utah religion to a degree the others can't quite reach (Why is that? The dapper, Bishop-cut hairdo?)
Why not? Because once Romney is thrown into the turgid ocean that is Congress, he might find it's just easier to float with the president's current than resist and find himself tired, alone and floundering. The Democrats are already painting Romney as a carpetbagger. State Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, for one, jokingly pretends that Romney's advisers are coaching him with binders full of information on Utah geography.
In the end, these races could go to a politician who has yet to emerge or who we've neglectfully overlooked. Sometimes you just can't predict the outcome. Look at 2016, for example. If that election has taught us anything, it's that no matter how many polls you read, the winner will most likely be the candidate the Russians pick.