New state GOP chair Thomas Wright has big shoes to fill

Published: Sunday, Feb. 13 2011 10:15 p.m. MST

Enid Greene Mickelsen served in Congress.

August Miller, Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — Joe Cannon. Enid Greene. Stan Lockhart. Dave Hansen.

For 10 years, the men and woman who wielded the money and influence of the chairmanship of the Utah GOP were a Who's Who of Utah's Republican powerbrokers.

Cannon is the former assistant administrator for air and radiation and associate administrator for policy and resource management in the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as CEO of Geneva Steel. He had come within a whisker of beating Bob Bennett for the U.S. Senate in 1992. Greene had served in Congress. Lockhart was an influential Utah County party insider, friend to powerful state Sen. Curt Bramble, and his wife was a rising star who is now the Utah Speaker of the House. Hansen managed Sen. Orrin Hatch's re-election campaign in 2006.

The man following in their footsteps isn't the same kind of household name as his predecessors.

Yet.

Thomas Wright is the new chair of the Utah Republican Party following Hansen's resignation to captain Hatch's 2012 reelection campaign. Wright, 37, most recently served several successful years as chair of the Salt Lake County Republican Party.

Because of the flexible nature of his new position, it's largely up to Wright, and the force of his personality, to determine how much power he will hold while orchestrating a state GOP that has averaged $662,000 in annual disbursements over the past decade.

"Some (state party) chairmen are really, really powerful, but there's no inherent power in the position itself," explained Cannon, chair of the Utah Republican Party from 2001-07. "It really depends on who the chairman is, what the chairman brings to the position and how much they want to play. Some people have had it and they're simply figureheads (who) let the executive director run everything; other chairmen are pretty active."

Cannon, a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board and a former editor of the paper, considers some of the state chair's most important responsibilities to be fundraising, running the state convention and shaping policy issues that tie into the state legislature.

Lockhart, state GOP chair from 2007-09, provides a nuanced point of view about what it's like to function in Wright's new position.

"There are three parts to a party," Lockhart said. "You have the grass-roots, made up of just delegates and the general people who are registered Republicans; you have the donors, and they're the ones who fund the party; and then you have the elected officials. All three of those parts of the party are important to the success of the party.

"But there's a little tension between all three of those groups. The real challenge for a party chair is to try and make sure all three of those groups are treated with respect and with dignity and that you encourage them all to work with each other."

Wright's accomplishments as county chair may provide a measure of insight into how he'll steer the Utah Republican Party. While heading the Salt Lake County Republican Party, he zealously toiled at the grass-roots level to help snatch three house seats, one senate seat and a majority on the Salt Lake County Council from Democrats in the 2010 election.

An underlying catalyst for Wright's brand of upstart success was the vote-by-mail campaign he championed. That effort, for which Wright and other dedicated Republican volunteers spent countless hours canvassing neighborhoods, eventually registered 40,000 people to vote by mail.

"(Thomas) focuses on the right kinds of things," said Hansen, the outgoing chair. "He has an ability to follow through on the programs that he puts together, he makes a great difference and he is willing to commit the time and the energy that the job takes."

Born in Salt Lake City, Wright is the fifth of eight children. He bears the distinction of being one of the first 16 proselytizing missionaries the LDS church sent into Ukraine in the early 1990s. A University of Utah graduate, he and his wife, Caroline, are parents to four children ages 3 to 10. During the late 1970s, his father, Bob Wright, held the same leadership position with the Utah Republican Party that Thomas does now. In the 1980 gubernatorial election, the elder Wright garnered 44.6 percent of Utah's vote in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat incumbent governor Scott Matheson Sr.

"Chairman of the state party is a big volunteer job," Thomas Wright said. "I think a lot of people misunderstand that it's a volunteer job that we do in addition to what we do professionally and the time that we spend with our families.

"I think people recognized me for the hard work I had done (at the county level) in organizing people to get Republicans elected. That put my name out there for state party chair when Dave Hansen resigned, and I was flattered that people thought of me in that light."

e-mail: jaskar@desnews.com

twitter: @askargo

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