Utahn serving as Huntsman's national finance chairman feels the heat

Published: Sunday, Sept. 18 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Jeff Wright and Jon Huntsman, Jr. in Israel.

Provided by Jeff Wright

SALT LAKE CITY — Jeff Wright, the Utah business executive who's heading up Jon Huntsman Jr.'s presidential fundraising effort nationally, chats easily about everything from ancient Rome to color palettes.

The meaning of Actium Partners, the name chosen for the private equity firm he helped found? Wright, who majored in history and political science at the University of Utah, describes the battle at Actium involving Cleopatra and her consort, Marc Antony.

And the muted collages lining the walls of a conference room at the Salt Lake headquarters of Struck Axiom, the advertising agency he's a partner in. They're inspiration, he explains, for a redesign of client McDonald's fast-food restaurants.

Politics, too, is a topic Wright's more than willing to tackle — especially if he can work Huntsman's attributes as a candidate into the conversation, or offer a not-so-subtle criticism of the rest of the GOP field.

He even brings up the turnover the former Utah governor's campaign has experienced, which has raised questions about its stability. Huntsman, Wright said, "should never apologize for wanting perfection in his team."

But there is something he just won't talk about — his age.

Wright at first ignores a question about how old he is and, when pressed, will admit only to being under 40.

"Age is irrelevant," said Wright, who serves on Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. "It's about what you bring to the table."

Later, he uses the term "youthful indiscretion" when asked about his only bid for political office, an unsuccessful challenge in 2000 to then-GOP Rep. Merrill Cook, when Wright was just 28 years old and reportedly worth as much as $68 million.

His self-described "prickly" attitude about his age is the only hint that Wright's less than comfortable discussing his new role as Huntsman's national finance chairman.

There's plenty of pressure to be sure on the newcomer to presidential politics on the national level. Huntsman, who entered the race in June after stepping down as U.S. ambassador to China, trails in the polls.

Because of his late start, Huntsman won't file his first campaign fundraising disclosure statement with the Federal Elections Committee until October. His campaign said in July it had just over $4 million, about half from Huntsman himself.

Wright, who raised money in Utah for former President George W. Bush and 2008 GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, will say only that the campaign is expected to meet its financial goals.

He dismissed repeated reports that Huntsman, who may be investing more of his own cash in the campaign, is struggling to raise money. "I think that's more talk on the media side than it is internally," Wright said.

The "doctors and scientists and entrepreneurs and business people and philanthropists" the campaign is turning to for support aren't being scared away by what appears in the political press, Wright said. "You're dealing with a very smart and savvy group of individuals."

But Wright acknowledges feeling the heat.

"Of course I do. Much of that is self-imposed," he said. "I want to see the governor win and I know the finance side is an important component of that. It goes back to being a believer."

So much so that Wright said he questioned whether Huntsman was making the right decision naming him as national finance chairman in early August. After all, Wright said, he doesn't have the donor lists that other, more experienced political fundraisers do.

Wright was apparently not Huntsman's first choice. Zion's Bank CEO and President Scott Anderson, who helped collect more than $2 million for a Utah-based political action committee associated with Huntsman, reportedly turned down the unpaid post.

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