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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Some people worth keeping an eye on in 2011 politics in Utah

Published: Sunday, Jan. 9 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Pignanelli and Webb: Everyone follows high-profile political and community leaders. Yet, our lives are often impacted by people who aren't on the front pages of the newspapers. In this new year, here are some people worth watching, including both newcomers and old-timers who may not have had high visibility. Some may even emerge as stars.

Derek Miller, Gov. Gary Herbert's new chief of staff — Miller brings a strong economic development background to the job and is well-regarded among political insiders. He has been effective as deputy director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development and his appointment signals that Herbert is serious about job creation. Miller must adroitly maneuver the governor's office and cabinet among the competing interests of the Legislature, special-interest groups, the tea party, moderates, and nervous voters to prepare for Herbert's next election — just two years away.

New House Speaker Becky Lockhart — As an adroit behind-the-scenes operator, Lockhart has never sought the limelight and hasn't enjoyed warm relationships with the news media. Now as Utah's first female House speaker, and as one of Utah's most powerful politicians, the spotlight focuses on her, and every move will be scrutinized. She must effectively lead her caucus, balancing the demands of ultraconservative legislators who helped her win office and mainstream lawmakers who still command respect. If she is able to unite the GOP (and few count her out), she may be a prospect for higher office.

State Sen. Dan Liljenquist — Although he lost his bid for Senate president, Liljenquist, a relative newcomer, remains a legislative force. With a reputation for taking on tough assignments (he led the successful restructuring of the state retirement system). Liljenquist will attack an even tougher challenge: getting Utah's skyrocketing Medicaid expenditures under control. If he pulls this off, Orrin Hatch and Herbert may want to watch him carefully in their rearview mirrors.

State Rep. Carl Wimmer — Jason Chaffetz may be the darling of tea party activists, but Wimmer is their soul. This founder of the Patrick Henry Caucus has a huge agenda this year: fight for states' rights in the Legislature, ensure creation of a congressional district that allows him to run for Congress, maintain national visibility with the tea party, and raise at least $500,000 by the end of the year. If he can achieve this, he might make believers of many detractors who say he is too right-wing to be a serious contender at higher levels of politics.

State Rep. Melvin Brown — "More lives than an alley cat," is how one veteran lawmaker describes Brown. The former arch-conservative House speaker, who resigned under duress and later returned to the House as a moderate, was sidelined from power for many years. He is back as appropriations co-chair, and some observers say he is angling to return to the speaker's podium.

New Salt Lake County Council member Richard Snelgrove — Another returnee who was out of office for years, Snelgrove is a veteran of Republican politics. His business acumen (in ice cream and other endeavors) provides a good background to wrangle county council politics. If he does well, watch for him to seek the 2012 Republican nomination for County Mayor.

Salt Lake County Council member Jim Bradley — With current County Mayor Peter Corroon not expected not to seek a third term in 2012, Bradley may be the favorite for the Democratic nomination. But in this conservative, anti-incumbent era, he must demonstrate leadership that appeals to a broad spectrum of voters. How he develops his persona in the next year may determine his success.

South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood — Long viewed as a gritty, blue-collar afterthought to the big city to the north, South Salt Lake has a chance to transform itself with the right leadership. Wood, while young, appears to have the determination and vision to take advantage of a new streetcar line, creation of a community center on the old Granite High campus, and other major redevelopment in the city.

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