MILLCREEK — Overstock.com Chairman Jonathan Johnson assured the small group gathered in a neighbor's backyard on a recent warm evening they'd have no trouble helping him win over voters in his primary race against Gov. Gary Herbert.
"We're asking you to call or go to the door of someone who we know is likely to vote and is undecided. And I'll tell you, it's not that hard. You spend a minute or two with them, give them some comparison, some literature," Johnson said.
He snapped his fingers with a flourish and smiled. "People are ready for change," Johnson said. "I think they see what the governor did with his fundraising. They're frustrated. They feel there's a good ol' boy network going."
Johnson, 50, also said contrary to published polls that give the governor a big lead, his internal polling of those same Republican voters shows them running "neck and neck." His campaign is expected to release details later this week.
There's no question the June 28 GOP primary race has heated up since Johnson won at the state GOP convention in late April, with the support of 55 percent of the Republican delegates compared with 45 percent for the governor.
Just days after his loss, Herbert was secretly recorded at a meeting with lobbyists offering to meet with their clients in exchange for campaign contributions and calling himself "Available Jones," a comic strip character willing to do anything for a price.
Johnson has tried to make sure voters don't forget the incident, which the governor has said he regrets. One of Johnson's TV commercials features Herbert's own voice from the meeting and another calls him "tied to lobbyists."
He's also hammering on the tax increases approved since Herbert assumed the office in 2009, including recent hikes in the gas, property and, in some counties, local-option sales taxes. Johnson has taken a pledge not to raise taxes if elected.
Another issue for Johnson is federal overreach. He opposes the Common Core education standards once backed by Herbert, and has been critical of the governor for not more aggressively pursuing state control of public lands.
His message is being fueled by Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne, who has pumped $650,000 directly into Johnson's campaign and another $200,000 to Johnson's Promote Liberty political action committee.
Utah has no limits on campaign contributions, and a review of the past five years of candidate financial disclosure statements found that Byrne is the biggest individual contributor to a single candidate.
During an interview at Johnson's Highland Drive headquarters, a friend dropped by with a campaign contribution. Johnson said they'd met during the unsuccessful effort in 2007 funded by Byrne to stop voters from repealing school voucher legislation.
After his campaign victory, Johnson said he'd hoped to see a lot more of that kind of support. But he said he's lost friends and experienced "a kind of vindictiveness," because of what he believes is pressure from the governor's camp.
He said he and his wife, Courtney, have put nearly $200,000 into the campaign.
"I think we've been blessed and we live well, but I think our wealth has been overstated," Johnson said, calling the contribution by their family of five boys, "signficant for us."
Both Johnson and Byrne have said there are no strings attached to the contributions, initially intended to jump-start the campaign. Johnson said he is "very grateful to him because I can't raise money otherwise."
Byrne called himself "a small 'L' libertarian" and said the two are split on many issues, citing his support for legalizing marijuana and the successful court battle to overturn Utah's ban on same-sex marriage.
"Not only is there no quid pro quo, I'm happy to pledge I will never speak to Jonathan once he's in office," said Byrne, who is on an indefinite medical leave of absence from Overstock.com.
They seldom socialize now, Byrne said, even though he considers Johnson a lifetime friend. "We are the odd couples of odd couples," he said, although Johnson has "always been very respectful and kind to me."
Byrne said Johnson, first hired as lawyer for the company in 2002, quickly showed himself as a "reliable guy to run things," becoming president in 2008, acting CEO in 2013 and then chairman of the board.
Overstock, Byrne said, was run like a "fort in the Old West" with him "taking the cavalry and going out on patrols" while Johnson managed the operation. They teamed up against Wall Street in a long-running battle over stock manipulation.
"I effectively made him my boss when I made him chairman," Byrne said of his decision to entrust Johnson with "my own baby. I feel very good with him looking after it."
Johnson said he's been considering making a bid to become governor since being approached four years ago with the idea. He's already been involved in politics through advocating for issues like school vouchers.
No turning back
Courtney Johnson, his wife of 28 years, saw the prospect of an actual run for office as "horrible" and said she'd "hoped it was a topic that was just going to go away."
When the pair first married, she said she expected her Los Angeles-raised husband to be using his Japanese language skills to practice international law at this point in their lives. "I would have thought we'd be in Tokyo," she said.
But Johnson said the "seed had been planted" about becoming a candidate. Then the BYU graduate read a book, "Leadocracy," about the need to bring business expertise into government, and there was no turning back.
His wife said the idea in the book that government needs qualified people willing to hold office only for a while "really resonated with him" at the same time his role at Overstock shifted.
"He realized this might be the window to do this," she said, calling his first run for public office "a once in a lifetime shot" that has cost the family in lost financial opportunities.
She set aside her reluctance to help her husband campaign, joining him in appearances around the state. "How can I deny him this thing?" Courtney Johnson said, adding that all he wants to do is offer his skills to the state.
What is clear to her is that there won't be another campaign if her husband loses the primary.
"We are not looking for a career in politics. We are not laying the groundwork for 2020. We are giving it all we possibly can right now," she said. "If the voters say, 'No, thank you,' we will return to our private lives."
Longtime friend Michael Larsen, an attorney who first met Johnson when he joined what turned out to be a struggling tech company and needed additional legal help, said he didn't see him as a candidate.
"I was surprised when he told me," Larsen said. "In a private moment, he said he was thinking about running for governor. He asked what I thought about it, had I ever thought about politics as a career option. I said no."
Larsen said Johnson is passionate about making a difference and then leaving politics, deeply concerned about what he saw as the need to directly confront the federal government.
"I just remember thinking, 'Well, it's a challenge in a Republican state to challenge an incumbent,'" he said, but Johnson was committed. "He knows his own mind. I'm sure, knowing him like I do, he would have given this careful consideration."
Johnson clearly understands the position he's in politically, Larsen said.
"I think he's always seen himself as an underdog. I think he recognizes the Republican political machine is not all that excited about him challenging" a popular incumbent, Larsen said.
The qualities that Johnson brings are evident in how he handled legal issues, the attorney Johnson considers a mentor said.
"He doesn't hem haw. He doesn't position. I mean, he just tries to make the right decision in the circumstance. He's not a shrinking violet, not at all. But he's fair, he's even-handed," Larsen said.
He's also seen Johnson as a family man, a father who encouraged a love of reading among his five sons by choosing books for them to read over the summer.
The incentive for them to finish the books, Larsen said, is a road trip with their father to Los Angeles to see Johnson's beloved Los Angeles Dodgers play. "They pretty much all qualify," Larsen said.
Johnson's running mate, longtime school choice advocate Robyn Bagley, said they share the same principles and conservative values and are not afraid to make unpopular decision.
"He wants to serve for the right reasons," she said. "We've lost that along the way. I don't think you have to do a lot of things to prepare to run. You have to have desires and principles."
Bagley said being willing to step away from a successful career to take a turn in government is patriotic.
"I know that sounds corny," she said. "But more people need to stand up and serve in government and then get out."
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