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

Published: Thursday, Oct. 8 2015 10:24 a.m. MDT

Jeff Wright and Jon Huntsman, Jr. in Israel. (Provided by Jeff Wright) 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.

Jeff Wright () Jeff Wright ()

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.

After about a month on the job, Wright has perfected his pitch to prospective contributors. The gist is that Huntsman is the only Republican who can defeat President Barack Obama in November 2012.

"He's a remarkable politician. He will not be easy to beat. These candidates who are on the fringe of our party who think they're going to get in and beat President Obama, I think, are a bit delusional," Wright said.

He declines to be specific about which candidates he's referring to, other than Texas Rep. Ron Paul, known for his sometimes extreme libertarian views on government.

"You throw Ron Paul out there, I can guarantee you are going to lose the election," Wright said. "When you look at many of the candidates, they're not that far from Ron Paul."

The current GOP frontrunner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is "not as fringe as Ron Paul, but I don't know that the country is ready for another governor from Texas. I think he's said some fairly controversial things."

That's baggage Huntsman doesn't have, Wright said.

And Mitt Romney, who outpolls Huntsman even in Utah? Wright said Romney can't match Huntsman's combination of "sunny, western conservatism," international expertise and private sector experience in his family's billion-dollar chemical empire.

Then there's the image of Huntsman as a free-thinking, Harley riding, rock-n' roll loving candidate portrayed in media outlets ranging from Vogue magazine to Fox News to CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight.

Members of the national media "find him a fascinating candidate. I mean, he is a center-right candidate. He's not trying to play to the right. He is being who he is," Wright said.

He said every time Huntsman appears in print or on television, there's a spike in online contributions, usually from $25 to $100, from people smitten with what they've seen.

"I don't look at a myself as having to sell Jon Huntsman," he said. "I just have to merely get the word out of who he is. That's a different proposition. Maybe you would say that's semantics."

And maybe the same could be said about how he describes those who decline to give to the campaign when asked.

"I would say that we have been turned down in a way that's somewhat palatable, because there's still people on the fence," Wright said. "It's not that they don’t like Gov. Huntsman or support him. It's a matter of timing. … That's in a way good news, because they're not with another candidate."

Wright said he's devoting about 80 percent of his time to the campaign, including supervising a team of more than 250 volunteer fundraisers nationwide. He compared the campaign to a startup company.

"There has been a lot of press about staff changes and what have you, but I think you build the structure to match the strategy," he said. "And we have a strategy for the long haul."

A key member of that fundraising team, Lew Cramer, head of the World Trade Center in Utah, said Wright is doing just fine.

"He's a very talented individual. He's a fast learner. I see some very expansive plans for national fundraising," Cramer said. "I feel very positive about this."

Jeff Wright bio:

Education: University of Utah, Oxford University, London School of Economics

Professional: chairman, Actium Partners, private investment firm; founder and board member, StruckAxiom, advertising agency; managing partner, W Exploration, national gas exploration and production company; president and managing partner, Wright Ventures-Orbis Capital, investing company; and managing partner, VenWright-Volpe Capital, equity and real estate holding company

Current service: Pacific Council on International Policy; Leadership Community Council on Internationalization of the U.; U. Student Initiatives Board; U. International Leadership Academy mentor; Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control commissioner, Huntsman for President 2012 national finance chairman

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