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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Utah's House Speaker Greg Hughes talks about Operation Rio Grande as he stands on the sidewalk near the Road Home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — He's seen as one of the most powerful Republicans in the state of Utah.

He was one of the first high-ranking Utah politicians to embrace Donald Trump for president.

He drove the effort to block the governor's Medicaid expansion plan in 2015.

And yet House Speaker Greg Hughes has also become one of the loudest voices on Capitol Hill for homelessness — the same social issue that has been a political nightmare for the two Democratic mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.

From the same storefront where Operation Rio Grande was devised this summer — which Hughes once called the "war room" — the speaker chuckled when he thought of the snarky recognition he's received for his role in homeless shelter reform and Operation Rio Grande.

For Hughes' "stomp into the heart of the liberal homeland" to "take charge" of the Rio Grande area, Salt Lake City Weekly awarded him a 2017 Best of Utah award for the "Best Republican Storming of the Democratic Heartland."

Though Hughes said he's not sure whether that award should be taken as a "compliment or an insult," he said he'll wear it as a "badge of honor." He laughed as he compared it to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox's Humanitarian of the Year award from Catholic Community Services.

"I like my award better," Hughes said, chuckling. "(Cox is) Gandhi. I'm the invader."

Joking aside, Hughes said he didn't get involved with homelessness to "storm" Democratic domains.

"I wanted to help — I really did," Hughes said. "It wasn't meant to overtake or supplant the leadership of either the city or the county.

"I just concluded after watching this issue for some time and not seeing the results that, frankly, the public deserved, it was just too big for the county and the city to handle on their own."

Hughes insists he doesn't deserve all the credit for Operation Rio Grande, pointing to other state officials' work and the political sacrifices of Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams.

"I've said it from the beginning: no credit, no blame," Hughes said. "We do this shoulder to shoulder, or none of it will work."

'Fraught with peril'

Political pundits call Hughes' involvement in homelessness issues an "unusual" move for the Draper Republican — who comes from a city that erupted in outrage earlier this year when their mayor volunteered to host a homeless resource center.

To Hughes, Draper's raucous town hall reaction was "one of the ugliest public meetings that city has ever seen," he said.

"The issue of homelessness has been historically fraught with peril for elected officials," said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

And politics aside, "it is unusual for an elected official, particularly a speaker of the House, to get involved in a very local issue like this," Perry said.

Yet in his last two annual speeches to the Utah Legislature, Hughes has prioritized addressing homelessness and crime in Salt Lake City's infamous Rio Grande neighborhood as a statewide problem — pushing along more than $20 million in state funds to help build new homeless resource centers meant to replace the Road Home's beleaguered downtown shelter, slated for closure in June 2019.

And he didn't stop there.

In the fall of 2016, after he became frustrated by the lack of progress, Hughes strong-armed a resolution between Biskupski and the City Council when they faced a stalemate over whether the city would build two 250-bed shelters, like Biskupski wanted, or four 150-bed shelters, like what the City Council wanted.

Eventually, Biskupski would "cave in," as she put it — a move she said she would come to regret.

"My heart was never there. I wish I would have never caved," Biskupski said.

The mayor called the day she and the City Council unveiled the four neighborhoods they had picked for those facilities "the hardest day of her political career" because she was "announcing something I didn't support. She said neither she, nor McAdams, nor Hughes were happy with all four of the sites.

So while city officials endured two months of backlash over the four sites, particularly the Sugar House proposal, Hughes helped broker a compromise and later stood alongside Biskupski and McAdams to announce a new plan to instead build two 200-bed shelters in Salt Lake City and one somewhere else in Salt Lake County — a plan that required McAdams to also brave hordes of angry constituents in choosing a new site, which would eventually land in South Salt Lake.

Then, after he became frustrated by a string of violent incidents over the summer in the Rio Grande area, Hughes again stepped in, calling for more control of the drug- and crime-riddled neighborhood.

What resulted was Operation Rio Grande, a $67 million, multi-agency effort similar to the city's previously tested Operation Diversion that has drawn both praise and criticism. To date, the operation has resulted in more than 2,400 arrests, with about 400 arrested more than once. As of Thursday, 235 were still in custody.

But the operation has also brought on more than 200 new treatment beds and has also begun helping connect some homeless with jobs.

And for the first time in decades, it's brought the troubled neighborhood back under control. At least for now.

The city and county's two Democratic mayors say they welcome Hughes' actions, thankful the state has recognized homelessness and crime as a state problem, not just a city or county problem. McAdams called Hughes' involvement a "game changer."

"Speaker Hughes had the option of just looking the other way and letting it be someone else's problem," McAdams said, noting that both he and Biskupski had that same option.

"We were all willing to step in regardless, because we felt we had to do something," McAdams said.

Biskupski, who at one point clashed with Hughes over the fast-tracked closure of Rio Grande Street to create a "safe space" for people seeking services, said she and Hughes have "had our moments" but "we have a great deal of respect for one another."

Fallout

It's difficult to say whether Hughes' actions have earned him political points. In fact, political experts don't see Operation Rio Grande or his efforts to push along the homeless resource centers anything he'd particularly want to flaunt during future campaigns.

"It doesn't help him a whole lot in terms of Republican politics" in his Draper district, said University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank, though he added that if Hughes were to run for governor "he might be able to use it to say, 'I got things done'

"But it's no centerpiece to a campaign," Burbank said. "It's horribly controversial and complex."

Hughes' name has come up in polls as a potential candidate for governor in 2020.

Biskupski said though the partnership between the city and the state shows a transcendence of Republican versus Democrats politics when it comes to homelessness, she's "pretty confident Greg wants to be governor and wants to show one of the biggest voting blocs in the state that he cares about this community."

Hughes said he has no idea what his future in politics is, though he acknowledged he's running out of time before he needs to know. Hughes' current term ends next year.

But Hughes said he didn't care about his political future when he stepped in.

"When I decided I was going to put myself on ground zero in this, I thought I was doing it at a price," Hughes said, adding that he warned his chief of staff, Greg Hartley, "of all the things we've done, this is the one that's probably going to come with the greatest amount of criticism.

"I thought it would be my political demise. But I didn't care," Hughes said.

The speaker said even after the millions he and his legislative colleagues set aside for homelessness over the past two sessions, he was discouraged after the Fourth of July holiday where reports showed "everything was measurably worse."

That was the weekend when Salt Lake City earned national headlines after a professional baseball player was attacked by a homeless man and a car plowed into a group of people on a Rio Grande sidewalk.

"People were losing hope," Hughes said, adding that business owners were hiring their own security and even hazardous materials teams to clean blood and other bodily fluids off their doorsteps.

"I'm a believer in spending the political capital that you have," he said. "I don't want to try to play it safe for some other day or some other moment."

Perry and Burbank said whether Operation Rio Grande and the homeless shelter reform will ultimately be seen as positives for Hughes — and also McAdams and Biskupski — depends on what happens in June 2019, when the Road Home's downtown shelter is supposed to close and the new homeless resource centers open.

"The degree to which he is praised or criticized will depend on the success of the efforts overall," Perry said, noting that the same goes for Biskupski and McAdams.

McAdams agrees: "We're going to be judged on whether the problem is better or worse than it was before we got involved.

"And in that regard, I think we live or die together," the county mayor said.

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"The fact that we were willing to put aside our own (parties) and were willing to solve this problem I think is a good thing for all of us, and the public I hope will see that," McAdams added.

Biskupski, who will be up for re-election at the end of 2019, said her political career will likely depend on the outcome of the homeless shelter reform.

"But I will tell you that as hard as this has been and some of the pushback from people in the city, the vast majority of the people who live here are grateful," Biskupski said. "I hear it every day."