Overstock.com started off small, and you could say the same thing about Jonathan Johnson’s campaign for governor.
With more than eight months to go before the state’s 2016 primary election, the chairman of the online retailer’s board paid his first official visit to Moab as a candidate, and the setting was not unlike Overstock’s early days.
Speaking to an audience of five people, the Republican businessman recounted how the company began as a typical startup, with 18 people working out of a room about half the size of the Grand Center’s main auditorium.
Like many other startups, Overstock lost money at first. But its national and international profile continued to rise after it landed the number four spot in a National Retail Federation/ American Express customer service rankings of U.S. retailers, and it’s held onto the top four ever since.
Today, the company employs more than 1,800 people, and it’s expected to report about $2 billion in sales this year – a success that Johnson attributes to the motto “we save paperclips.”
Johnson, who is running against incumbent Gov. Gary Herbert for the GOP nomination, said he wants to bring that paperclip-saving mentality to the state capitol building in Salt Lake City.
In Utah, he noted, state lawmakers meet for 45 days a year on average, and during the most recent legislative session, they passed more than 500 laws.
“Here’s how I think it applies to government: We need less rules and less bureaucracy,” he said.
In his words, effective representation of Utah’s taxpayers is all about saving paper clips – or saving the public’s money.
“We talk about government revenue, but what it really is is the taxpayer dollars,” he said.
State lawmakers should be stretching those taxpayer dollars, he said, instead of looking for more revenue to fund additional services.
Johnson said he understands the need for a social safety net, but he questioned how large it should be. No matter how much it expands, he said, someone always falls off the edge, and there will always be sad stories of people who are left behind.
That’s why the virtue of charity is so important, he said, noting that private individuals, churches and local communities can help people in need.
Along similar lines, Johnson said the state needs to empower people who are capable of making the best decisions for Utahns, and he said that process is most effective at the individual and local levels.
“The further away we get in the decision-making process from individuals and from families, the worse it is,” he said. “That’s why I like city decisions more than I like county decisions. I like county decisions more than I like state decisions.”
And, needless to say, he prefers state decisions to decisions that the federal government makes.
He supports efforts to transfer ownership of Utah’s public lands from the federal government to the state, arguing that the responsible extraction of coal and minerals can help diversify the state’s economy.
Johnson acknowledged that he and Herbert say the same things about some issues, including public lands.
During Herbert’s first State of the State address, for instance, the governor said that Utah is not a colony, and he argued that the state must take back “our” public lands. But Johnson said that Herbert has had six years to make good on those statements, and has not followed through on them, despite state lawmakers’ support for the idea.
Since 2010, the legislature has given the governor’s office the tools it needs to proceed with those efforts, including bills that authorize and fund a lawsuit, as well as state-funded studies that see an advantage to state ownership of public lands.
“Those tools exist,” Johnson said. “It’s time we used those tools.”
Johnson hears local feedback about land transfer idea
Moab City Council candidate Kelly Mike Green told Johnson that he’s concerned about a president’s powers under the federal Antiquities Act to declare new national monuments on existing federal lands in Utah. Every time a Democrat ends up in the White House, he said, it becomes a problem.
“In rural Utah, we are dying, because every time we turn around, the Antiquities Act affects us,” Green said. “It cuts off our ability to have efficient extraction industries do what they do.”
Moab has a thriving tourist economy, he said, but the industry does not offer its employees living wages that other industries would provide.
“The problem I have is those jobs do not pay enough,” he said. “We need desperately to have that balance here in Grand County.”
Johnson said little to ease Green’s fears in the short term, predicting that Utah will be home to a new national monument by the time that President Barack Obama leaves office in 2017.
Members of Utah’s congressional delegation are still in the midst of a public lands initiative that aims in part to avert the designation of a new national monument. Johnson, however, said he doesn’t believe that the initiative is a good negotiating tactic, because the delegation is willing to trade away lands that Utah already owns.
If he’s elected, Johnson said he would step up the state’s public relations efforts to make the case that Utah’s public lands would not end up in the hands of private landowners or industries, following a transfer of ownership.
“The goal is not to take those lands and sell them off,” he said. “We don’t want to become Texas, with big, large ranches that Utahns can’t access. We’re not going to strip mine and create big open pit mines.”
Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson said he’d like to see the state’s leaders bridge the gap on the controversy surrounding the idea.
“I think as we move forward in negotiations with Congress, we need to understand that people want access to their lands,” he said. “And I think if the state tweaked its position to give these opponents of this transfer some assurance that the bulk of this land will remain open and public, I think a lot of those moderate (opponents) would go away.”
Jackson said he thinks it’s an easy sell, because state officials understand the importance of Utah’s recreation industry, as well as the value of public access to those lands.
“It’s one of the biggest industries in this state,” he said. “Its whole backbone is people having access to the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa and that, so it’s not in the state’s best intentions to sell on the fast track.”
If land transfer proponents succeed in their efforts, Johnson reiterated that Utah’s leaders would not give those newly acquired lands to the highest bidder.
“This argument that we’re going to sell the land is as silly as the pictures that they have of Delicate Arch with an oil derrick,” he said.
Candidate says political aspirations are narrow
Johnson is campaigning at a time when, under Herbert’s watch, Utah is enjoying strong economic growth and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. He’s also going up against a well-known incumbent who coasted to reelection in 2012 with almost 70 percent of the vote.
Herbert is able to run again because Utah is one of 13 states without term limits – a distinction that concerns Johnson.
“That’s dangerous – especially in a one-party state,” he said.
Herbert is not actively campaigning for reelection at this point, and although he has announced his intentions to run again, a spokesman has said he is focused on governing for the remainder of his term.
Johnson labeled Herbert a “career politician” who has held one form of elected office or another since the reunification of Germany and the debut of “The Simpsons” on network TV in 1990.
In contrast, Johnson noted that he has been with Overstock for 13 years – first as the head of its legal department, and later as its president, acting CEO and board chairman. If elected, he said, his political ambitions would begin and end at the governor’s office.
“I don’t have any aims on being a U.S. senator or anything else,” he said. “I’m running for governor and governor only.”
Jonathan Johnson is running against Gary Herbert for GOP nomination
To learn more about Johnson and his campaign, go to: hirejj.com, or follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/jjohnsonnow.
The further away we get in the decision-making process from individuals and from families, the worse it is … That’s why I like city decisions more than I like county decisions. I like county decisions more than I like state decisions.