Q&A: Thomas Wright visits Cache Valley, talks issues
Real estate executive Thomas Wright announced his bid for Utah governor shortly after celebrating the beginning of 2020 and has hit the ground running, traveling across the state for town hall meetings and naming Congressman Rob Bishop as his running mate.
The father of four has continuously balanced his career and family with a varying amount of involvement in politics and even served chairman of the Utah Republican Party for a couple years. However, this is his first campaign for an elected office.
“I have been involved in politics as a volunteer but I was no longer willing to sit on the sidelines and be an observer,” Wright said. “I wanted to be a participant.”
On Tuesday evening, Wright made his way to Cache Valley for a public town hall meeting and to sit down with The Herald Journal for an interview.
Q: What has kind of been the most surprising thing you have learned since kicking off the campaign?
A: How much Utahns care about Utah and how much they care about their local communities. And how big-city problems have come to our small towns in Utah.
Big-city problems have arrived. There are a lot more challenges in Utah than I knew as an individual in my local community. So it is time for new leadership time for a new perspective for someone who loves to solve problems and who wants to travel all these great communities and make it happen.
I’ve learned that issues are local, and that if you want to have success in Utah communities, you have to get into a hyper-local state of mind. State government is not going to solve the problems of small towns in rural Utah. But the state government can help and they can play a role and they can accelerate the solutions and enhance them by being present.
Q: What do you see for the future of Utah as it continues to change?
A: Well, Utah is not a secret anymore. We’ve had explosive growth, and the attraction to Utah has never been stronger for people from the outside. That’s great. But then comes all the challenges that come with it. The growth challenges of air quality and transportation infrastructure. We have that along the Wasatch Front, but in rural communities, we have maybe even more and that doesn’t get talked about a lot.
Then the affordable housing crisis, and that’s real in all these communities. It’s a simple problem to understand but harder to solve. Housing prices have gone up quicker than the wages. That needs to be solved because that creates a lot of byproducts. Instability in the home does not help children excel in school and reach their potential. This is more than just “Hey, we need to find a place for people to live.” This is about quality of life, the sustainability of the family unit and helping children reach their potential.
Q: With the problem of affordable housing having many different angles, how do you plan to address it if you are elected?
A: I’m a real estate person. I’m passionate about this and I can see this one really clearly. I think I’m the most qualified candidate to address the affordable housing crisis because I am somebody who’s been very involved in residential real estate.
There are three things that are contributing to this. And I think understanding that helps you solve the problem.
One is we have increasing land prices; the land has never been more expensive. Second, the cost of building housing has never been higher — cost of steel, lumber, petroleum etc. And then we have a shortage of labor, meaning subcontractors and contractors have never had more demand.
When you combine those three factors, you have this perfect storm for this rapidly escalating real estate market. It’s great if you own land or you’re a subcontractor, but it’s hard if you’re the one trying to find housing.
So what happens is, we can’t really control the shortage of labor. And we can’t really control the cost of building. So people go to where there is land, out on the perimeter, which leads to urban sprawl and air quality gets worse, transportation infrastructure gets more strained. You have to build new schools, then you have a further shortage of teachers. So all your problems then compound. If we consider rezoning wasted space in our cities, we can look at our whole landscape in a different way because of the changing economy. That is going to provide us with some opportunities to do things differently.
The state government should never mandate the cities to do this, but the state should provide leadership and a road map and ideas for how they can solve their affordable housing challenge, and then let the local cities and municipalities make the decisions that are best for their local communities.
Q: If you are elected, how will you interact with the legislature in order to work with tax reform?
A: So in the tax reform proposal, there were three positives and kind of three things that the public had challenges with. They liked the income tax cut, the fact that Social Security was being taxed less for seniors on fixed income. And they liked the fact that now people can take the personal standard deduction with the Trump tax cuts.
The three things they had challenges with were sales tax on food, taxing gas and then sales tax on services. Those three things really are hard.
And so my theory is, the very first thing you have to do is you have to look at the budget and you have to say, is there any way to save money to reallocate resources and to spend in a way that better matches the priorities of Utah? That’s the first thing you have to do.
I’ve looked at the budget and I can tell you, there’s a lot of places where I think we’re spending money, but I’m not sure those are our top priority. That for me is No. 1 on tax reform.
The second thing is recognizing there is a structural imbalance. Our income tax is the most volatile. Right now, it’s really good so there’s money in there, but it’s constitutionally earmarked for education so it’s locked up in there. Our general funds have gone down, they say, because sales tax is going down because there’s more services.
The question is who in this race is the best governor to address that structural imbalance with the legislature to make it happen? And a Wright-Bishop administration would be one that’s active in that and would be actively talking to the public at a very micro level in communities so that we can gather the best ideas and figure out what the best way forward is. I don’t think we need new taxes. We have a spending problem.
Q: Looking at current trends in the state, what are some challenges that you anticipate for Utah?
A: The biggest one I think we face is the teacher shortage and that we’re not paying teachers enough. And those two go hand-in-hand. When you’re not paying enough in a profession, you’re going to lose those professionals to competing jobs. We need to stop treating public education and teachers and public education like it’s a second profession. We need to pay a fair market wage.
When you pay someone too little and then you overregulate it with too much standardized testing, when there are too many challenges in the classroom and there isn’t enough support, it just all gets to be too much.
I really believe that if you solve the teacher pay challenge, you immediately solved the shortage problem. And most of the challenges that you have start to go away. It’s not even that you’re trying to reduce classrooms with size, but you do, by virtue of paying better. These people love our kids and they want to teach them and they’re trained to do it and they’re qualified. We’re running them off.
Q: What do you want Utah to be known for nationwide, worldwide?
A: We have the most amazing people. People care more about their communities here than anywhere I’ve ever seen. Utah really is just the leader and I want everyone to know that. I want people to know that we care more about quality of life and community. Coming here, they will see that.
We should also want to be known for the amazing business successes we’ve had. We have some incredible companies in this state. Being known for those great achievements and accomplishments is important because our people built and ran and helped make those companies successful.
Q: Do you have ideas of how to stimulate growth in rural communities?
A: First off, we need to look at how we diversify the economies in rural Utah. And I say economies, plural, because there’s many different economies in rural Utah. There’s not just one type of rural. It is starting to frustrate me when it is generalized.
We need to let those economies decide how they want to grow. Let’s identify those opportunities and make it happen. And we do that by spreading the economic incentives out.
The people are coming to the Wasatch Front in record numbers and I don’t think we need to do as much to incentivize them. But I think we do need to look at how we can reallocate that spending according to our priorities and make it happen for rural Utah. We don’t want counties to be thinking about what they should do based on the definition of the size of a county. We want communities to be what they want to be and not be scared of growth and not being scared of losing out because they got too big.
We have to look at every county and every community like we look at our own children, they’re all unique. They’re all different. You know, you don’t treat them all the same. They have different temperaments, talents, and convictions, and abilities, and you want them all to achieve their greatest potential from the gifts that they have.
When you just say rural Utah and you make this big blanket statement, I think it’s disingenuous and no one person can do this, no one governor can do it. We can work in conjunction with these local communities to identify strategic planning for what they want to be and then allow the state to help to assist as a partner.