COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — For Jennifer Parr, Tuesday evening's campaign kickoff party for Jonathan Johnson was an opportunity for her and her husband to hear why he's running against fellow Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.
"It's not that I'm not happy. I just think we can always do more," said Parr, who brought three of the family's five children to enjoy free cheeseburgers, fries, shakes and a live band at the event that attracted several hundred people.
Johnson, chairman of Overstock.com, later spoke about Parr's top issue in the 2016 governor's race, education, as well as the need for term limits on statewide elected officials, including the governor.
The crowd booed his mention of the federal Common Core Standards, which he described as "social engineering," and applauded his call for less dependence on Washington, including for federal funds.
"I like smaller government and government that's closer to home," Johnson said.
Other priorities he outlined in a speech to an enthusiastic audience crowded into a lobby of an office building near the Overstock.com headquarters included public lands, clean air and economic development.
"When the governor touts what a great place (Utah) is to do business, I'm never sure whether I should answer, 'Thank you,' or 'You're welcome,'" Johnson said. "It's the business here that create jobs."
He said the state's already strong economic environment can be bolstered by less regulation, including new laws that limit companies like the ride-sharing service Uber from competing, as well as reducing or even eliminating corporate income taxes.
Utah also needs to be more aggressive in getting back control of public lands from the federal government, Johnson said, by becoming the "tip of the spear" and leading other Western states in the fight.
He said the Wasatch Front's air can be made cleaner not by "draconian rules" against wood burning, but by encouraging more Utahns to turn to natural gas by making the fuel more available.
"Leadership is as leadership does," Johnson repeated, ending his speech with asking for voters to put both him and Herbert through a "rigorous interview process" that includes frequent debates.
"Utah is good, but we can be great," he said.
Several GOP lawmakers attended the event, which followed Johnson's formal announcement he was entering the race made at last month's state Republican Party convention.
Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, said it's difficult for lawmakers to endorse a candidate in the governor's race until after the 2016 Legislature ends — and Herbert acts on legislation that's passed.
"The question is: Do we want to get involved prior to next session?" Cox said.
Others had made up their mind already because of their prior associations with Johnson.
Gunnar Thorderson, a business major at Utah Valley University, said Johnson has supported his school's Young Americans for Liberty club and is "all about opening markets and not being pushed around by the establishment."
A Weber State University student, James Thompson, said he also wants "to see a fresh face in the office. Herbert has been there too long."
Herbert took office in 2009, when former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China. He won his first full term as governor in 2012 and announced last year he would run for re-election.
Marty Carpenter, who stepped down earlier this year as the governor's spokesman to manage the campaign, said a formal kickoff event will likely not be held until next year.
"Whether or not somebody is running against you, you have to go out and make your case to the voters," Carpenter said. "When the time’s right, I’m sure the governor will be ready to make that case."
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