Tough Pittsburgh Kid Hughes Still Standing In the Utah Ring

From the Deseret News June 29, 2009

When he was 12, Greg Hughes went off to a youth summer camp. First day he got in three fistfights.

The next day counselors sent him to the camp boxing ring, figuring he’d get along better there. He did.

When he went into Utah politics, he fought in that arena like he did in the ring: “Leading with my chin, slow on my feet,” Hughes jokes.

Now 39, Rep. Hughes, R-Draper, has made one of the quickest turnarounds in Utah political history.

Considered down on the canvas last October when charged with numerous ethics violations five weeks before Election Day, Hughes got out of that scrape, bloodied but resolute. He won re-election.

Just four months later he pulled off a political upset few figured he could achieve, by orchestrating passage of a liquor-by-the-drink bill in the 2009 Legislature. It was the biggest alcohol change in Utah since mini-bottles were banned, and it was accomplished by bringing together disparate sides, like the LDS Church, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, liquor-license holders, and drinkers.

Now he’s reportedly being considered, among others, by Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert for the second spot in state government when Herbert steps up to the soon-to-be vacant governorship.

Hughes’ fighting nature has clearly paid off.

But he’s also trying these days to be a kinder, gentler Greg Hughes, saying he’s learned some valuable, if painful, realities.

Dressed in a faded polo shirt, cargo shorts and grubby tennis shoes — “my landlord outfit” —Hughes leans back on a modern, rubberized chair in his sparsely furnished west-side Salt Lake City office, analyzing his life.

He’s realized, perhaps a bit late, that acting like a “poor teenager from the steel mills of Pittsburgh” is different “than being an adult legislator in Utah.”

Now a GOP Mormon businessman/politician, Hughes didn’t have your typical middle-class Utah upbringing.

“I was always loved. But there were challenges.”

His mom was an unmarried, college art student when Hughes was born. He never knew, nor met, his father, although Hughes is his deceased father’s last name. Hughes’ mother sold cemetery plots, “totally on commission,” and while she provided, the paychecks were spotty. One month “she’d buy me all these crazy gifts, when she had money. Once, she bought a new TV set and signed up for cable — all the rage in the 1970s.”

But then she wouldn’t pay the bills.

“The electricity was cut. The cable was turned off after one month. She’d take me to McDonald’s, but (at home) the refrigerator wouldn’t be stocked, there wasn’t any food,” he said. “She was an artist, God bless her. A painter; very unorganized.”

His mom converted to the LDS religion after missionaries came to the door when Hughes was a baby. “Growing up I had a bad attitude toward the Church,” and he thought his mom a bit flaky. “I thought the reason we were Mormons is because the Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t find her first.”

Things settled down some when his mother married a steel mill union man when Hughes was five, and the couple had two daughters together. But that marriage ended in divorce when Hughes was 10. And Hughes’ high school years didn’t produce a scholar.

“There were a lot of things in life, where I grew up (in Pittsburgh) that I had to fight for,” he recalls. “I went to a school where when you fought someone, you gained each other’s respect. If you and a guy bumped shoulders in the hallway, and he didn’t like the way you were lookin’ at him, you went into the boys room and work it out. Whoever won, you came out friends. You knew your boundaries.”

And still fighting in the boxing ring helped the bathroom brawls, too.

One day when Hughes was 16 he and a friend skipped school, a decision that would profoundly impact his life.

“He wrapped his VW around a telephone pole, me in the passenger seat. I was airlifted to the hospital, had 13 pins in one leg, nine in the other. My pelvis was wired together,” he said. He spent a year in a wheelchair. The accident and aftermath “led me to a religious experience, you could say,” and Hughes got serious about the LDS faith.

After he got out of the chair, Hughes worked as a bellman in an upscale Pittsburgh hotel where he learned “how to get good tips from people — make them feel like they were the king of the world.”

Then came “the LDS girl.”

“Her parents made it clear, she wasn’t marrying anyone who didn’t go on a mission. I thought I was in love, so I knew I was going” on a two-year assignment before college.

But his life took another turn before the black suit-wearing days in Australia/Papua New Guinea.

Hughes got involved in politics. Through friends he started working for then-Vice President George Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign in Pittsburgh. He rose quickly through the campaign ranks, that summer after graduation, taking on more and more important assignments. And he met Joe Waldholtz, a fellow Pittsburgh Republican also working on the race.

“I loved the policy part. I would sit up after people left campaign headquarters, reading (Bush’s) policy papers. And I found that I was a conservative.”

Bush won and Hughes says he was offered an entry-level administrative job on the White House legislative team — a lowly position, but still good stuff for a 19-year-old. But he’d already accepted his Church calling.

Even in the mission field, there was still boxing. (Today, Hughes helps manage a professional fighter).

“In New Guinea, there were these guys who I thought were ripping us off — they even stole my Bible and Book of Mormon. They were hanging out in a boxing gym. So I decided to get to know ’em” — he holds a picture where he’s taking an overhand right on the nose from a large New Guinea boxer. “We did get to be pals,” and the thieving stopped. But the mission president told Hughes to knock it off after the punching elder showed up to a church meeting with his left eye bruised shut and had to explain what happened.

Friends and his LDS religion lead him to Provo the spring of 1991, where he later earned an associate degree from Utah Valley State College (he was the editorial page editor of the college newspaper, writing a column called: “The World According to Greg”), but he dropped out of Brigham Young University to make a living.

Skip ahead 15 years. Hughes is married to an LDS girl (a different one), has three kids (the youngest is named Reagan after you-know-who), living in Draper and is an owner/manager of 130 apartments with a “kindred spirit” partner he met while working on former U.S. Rep. Enid Greene’s Utah campaigns in the early 1990s. (That is a whole other story, not enough room here for telling. He’s still friends with Enid, but not with Joe Waldholtz, her former husband).

Always active behind the scenes in local GOP politics, Hughes stepped up to the ballot in 2002, winning an open legislative seat.

He quickly earned a reputation as an aggressive, conservative legislator willing to mix it up on Capitol Hill, staking out strong pro-private school voucher positions early on.

Still, his personal and partisan politics landed him in real hot water last summer — the first serious ethics investigation by the Legislature in years. He came out officially OK, most of the charges dismissed with unanimous or majority votes by the House Ethics Committee.

The committee, however, did give Hughes a reprimand saying he has to treat people better and act in a more professional manner.

“I heard that message,” he said, vowing to be more polite, more respectful.

An opportunity at rehabilitation soon came knocking — GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (who will soon leave to be ambassador to China) asked Hughes to take up liquor law reform, the ultimate hot potato of Utah politics. Huntsman had already asked other legislators, who said no.

“I don’t imagine I was on his “A” list,” says Hughes. “But I liked his liquor policy. I like the challenge.”

He clearly had not learned a lesson about avoiding a fight.

Krista, his wife — whom he hadn’t told about sponsoring a liquor-by-the-drink bill — looked up from her newspaper after first reading about it and said: “What is the matter with you?”

Recalls Hughes: “She couldn’t understand why I would take on such an emotional issue given what we had just barely got through.”

His attorney in the ethics case (he still owes the guy $42,000 in fees, and GOP and Democratic friends of Hughes recently raised $14,000 toward the debt), called him up. “I told you to keep a low profile,” he said to Hughes.

“I said: ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help it.'”

What did Hughes learn over the last 12 months?

“I could have gone through my whole life without having to live through it. Especially hard on my wife and oldest daughter” — who were friends with the former GOP legislator, Rep. Susan Lawrence, who made the most damaging charges against Hughes. Lawrence said Hughes offered her $50,000 in campaign aid if she would switch her vote on vouchers. He was cleared of that charge in a split ethics board vote.

To take on the liquor bill, “I thought he was crazy,” says Krista. The ethics investigation “hurt me, hurt our family.” But she stands by Hughes’ political work, no matter how painful. “He works his butt off. He was dirt poor and knows the other side, and he’s great at (politics) and is passionate about it. It’s who he is.”

About the ethics investigation, Hughes said, “I’m not bitter, and I’m not going to brood. I’ll work on that edge. I learned you don’t fight like you did in Pittsburgh. Not in Utah.”

Hughes says he’s “leaning” toward running for re-election in 2010. And if the Utah Legislature creates a new 4th Congressional seat in southern Salt Lake County, “I’ll consider it.”

If Herbert calls with the lieutenant governor offer, Hughes says he’d be honored — but doesn’t expect that call will come. Whatever happens, though, he wants to remain in public office.

“I like the policy, the Republican policy. And I like having influence, too. You could say I shouldn’t be here, in the halls of government. I was a white-trash kid with a single mom.” He looked at people who were well-off, “and they tended to be Republicans. And I said: I want to be successful in life. Why not? My mom worked hard all her life (she died of cancer at 50). Her mom, Grandma Max, worked two jobs, raising five kids alone after her husband left her.”

Neither woman took government aid, he says, although they could have.

“And it’s an honor to serve. I take it seriously.”