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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Boyd Matheson, president of the Sutherland Institute, poses for a portrait on Thursday, May 12, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — It hasn't been business as usual at the Sutherland Institute in hopes of upending politics as usual in Utah.

Those words appeared in the Deseret News 12 years ago as Sutherland's then-President Paul Mero overhauled the conservative, free-market think tank to make it more relevant. Mero accomplished that task in his 14 years at the helm.

But the outspoken political advocate and Sutherland parted ways nearly two years ago, leaving the 21-year-old organization without a visible leader. Though it lobbies state legislators as usual, it seemed headed for obscurity without a strong community voice.

Enter Boyd Matheson, a former chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and longtime business consultant and political strategist who took over at Sutherland in March. He won't strike the same tone as Mero, but just as his predecessor did, Matheson has big plans for Sutherland's next chapter.

Those words of more than a decade ago could apply again today with an ambitious addition: It hasn't been business as usual at the Sutherland Institute in hopes of upending politics as usual in Utah and the nation.

Its core belief that families, private initiatives, voluntary associations, churches and businesses are better problem-solvers than government has not changed.

But Matheson intends to remake the organization into what he describes as a nationally recognized idea factory for political entrepreneurs, a launching pad for thought leadership and a guardian of timeless principles.

"I saw in Sutherland an opportunity to really showcase Utah to the nation as, 'Look, this is what is working,'" he said, referring to the state's favorable business climate, strong economy, good neighborhoods and history of volunteerism.

Matheson also cites recent compromise legislation on religious liberty and LGBT rights, and immigration a few years ago as examples, though he concedes the state isn't without warts and problems.

Where Mero's instinct was to throw a verbal punch to make a point, Matheson's is to say, "Let's talk about it."

The new president vows to deliver Sutherland's message absent emotion or outrage, though he said it won't back down from a battle on its way to principles and policies that lead to the type of government he believes people want.

It successfully fought against a proposed hate crimes law and legalizing medical marijuana — both of which had support from some conservative Republicans — and Medicaid expansion in the last legislative session.

"This is not about kumbayah moments and hugging it out. We know there are real battles to be fought on issues that we're going to disagree with people on. But we also agree how you do that matters, and often your influence is greater if you haven't tried to whack somebody's head off," Matheson said.

Sutherland will continue working to influence public policy on a state level but also attempt to lift its profile nationally by convening thought leaders and elevating civil dialog and debate, Matheson said.

Mero called that an aggressive vision for a state-based think tank, noting not many of those have impact outside their own borders.

"Utah is exceptional, but it is also peculiar to people outside Utah," said Mero, who is launching a new public policy group focused on helping people in poverty. "I think Sutherland will struggle to be the Heritage Foundation of the West."

The Heritage Foundation is nationally recognized think tank based in Washington, D.C., that promotes conservative public policies based on free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom and a strong national defense. Sutherland has a similar mission but nowhere near the $82.4 million budget and 275 workers at Heritage.

Matheson said Sutherland isn't setting out to be another Heritage Foundation, but he acknowledges there's a lot of work ahead to become a go-to place for conservative ideas. Sutherland has 15 staffers and a $3 million budget.

"This is not a quick fix," he said.

Matheson's windowed South Temple office — on the corner of what Mero called Church and State when he occupied it — sits across from Temple Square and a block from the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which often describes its members as a "peculiar people."

How does a conservative think tank in the bastion of Mormondom get the rest of the country to listen and take it seriously?

Matheson said people are already taking a look.

"People are recognizing something is different in Utah, and it's not just the church. It's way beyond that. It goes to the way we govern, to the way our businesses interact in our communities, to the way our communities themselves function," he said.

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said Sutherland has been an asset to policymakers as a homegrown think tank. But he said Matheson has the background and the experience to make it an opinion leader for broader, nontraditional audiences.

"I think that they have the firepower to do it," he said.

Hughes also said Matheson has brought people together wherever he has worked.

Troy Williams, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Utah, hopes that's true.

Matheson, he said, will have to work to repair the damage done by his predecessor, whom he called a "culture war crusader.”

"The sign of a great leader is their ability to unite people despite differences, while weak leaders always seek to divide," Williams said. "Matheson has the potential to be a great leader for Sutherland if he can lay down the weapons of yesterday's culture war. There is no reason why Americans should be in constant battle with each other. It's tiresome."

Matheson said Sutherland will be a place where people with very differing viewpoints can come to have meaningful conversations, not the typical cable TV segment where a Democrat and a Republican shout talking points at each other for seven minutes.

"We believe that there's a lot of noise out there and the American people are really hungry to have a discussion around principles and policy. That's our main thrust. Things are going to be different," he said.

Sutherland is gearing up for the first Wednesday of November, the day after the general election. Once the dust settles after a "brutal" two years of campaigning, Matheson said, people will be looking for something to cling to.

"The Republican Party is going to be a big crater. The Democratic Party is going to be pretty fractured and split. Media is going to change," he said.

"Our goal is for Sutherland to be there with our flag planted as a trusted voice, a certain trumpet that's focused on principles and policies that work."

Email: [email protected], Twitter: dennisromboy