Sideline View of Utah Politics Episode 3: COVID19’s Impact on Burningham’s Campaign

Sideline View of Utah Politics: Part 2 of Conversation with Jeff Burningham

 This campaign was unlike any other. Traditionally candidates get into these races and they focus on recruiting delegates that can get elected to caucuses meetings, they focus on signature gathering. 

The way this played out in the world of coronavirus, everything you had been working on for a year or more, all of the strategy and what it takes to become governor, it got turned on its head.

Campaign Pre-Coronavirus

Jeff wanted to give some perspective on the impact that COVID19 has on his campaign so he shared these facts about his campaign prior to COVID19.:

  1. We had held nearly 500 public meetings the year leading up to it. We had recruited nearly 1,000 delegates to run on caucus. That just went away in 24 hours. That was gone. There was no caucus night. It was a virtual convention. It was over.
  2. We had collected nearly 20,000 signatures. The signature threshold is ridiculously high. There needs to be reform. And I believe that there will be. There needs to be election reform in the state.

The Process of Shutting Down the Campaign

Everything changed for the campaign when COVID19 began to spread in the United States:

“March 10th, we just shut off signature gathering  because I thought it was the right thing to do. My campaign thought I was crazy. It took me about a day, about 24 hours for me to help them wrap their heads around signatures. And to their credit, once I did, they were fully on board.”

When Jeff chose to shut down the campaign, he lost the opportunity to run for governor. By halting the collection of signatures, he did not meet the required 28,000 signatures:

“I literally have those 20,000 signatures sitting in boxes somewhere down in my basement. We took them to the lieutenant governor’s office and the court just rejected them. They wouldn’t take them because they were below the threshold. But that just went completely out the window with COVID19.”

Loss of Money and Time

Prior to COVID-19, Jeff had spent a large amount of time and money on his campaign, which was wasted when he was not able to run for governor:

“I invested nearly a million dollars into my campaign personally. Over a million dollars. And I had friends, CEOS, entrepreneurs, and many others that donated as well. They had donated a million dollars that we had already spent. We had a couple million dollars into this. All that time and effort and it all completely changed with COVID19.” 

And it wasn’t just money that was spent, there was a significant amount of time and effort put into the campaign:

“People do not understand how much we bled and sweated into this campaign. It was an enormous amount of time, energy, and money. It is hard to have it be taken from you.  It is heartbreaking.”

Moving Forward

The campaign was a difficult experience for Jeff but he is trying to move on:

“I’m embracing the pain and trying to become better from it. If it wasn’t meant to be, I didn’t want to be the governor. There are other ways that I can make a difference. Certainly less public ways, controversial ways, ways that I won’t be criticized as robustly. So I’ll look for those ways.”

His Impact on the Race

Even with the struggle, he hopes that his voice in the race had an impact:

“Hopefully, some good came of it. I think we shaped the discussion in quite significant ways. I had long conversations with all the candidates still in the race. I think they’ll continue to look at things that we were talking about.”

Moving forward, people are reaching out to ask for Jeff’s support and endorsements:

“It feels like every politician in the state is coming after me for my endorsement or support or trying to figure out how I can help them either get elected or support them afterwards.  I am just trying to determine if there is a place for me in politics. I am sure there could be if I wanted to be but I just don’t know if I want to be.”

Finding a Place in Utah Politics

As an entrepreneur, it is a struggle to find a place in politics:

“Politicians are the enablers of the political system that made them. Whereas entrepreneurs like myself are disrupters of the status quo that hopefully make greater opportunity available to all.  To me politics is kind of fake leadership. I like real leadership. So I’m trying to decide if there’s a place for real leadership in politics in Utah. Where could that be for me? Where could I make a difference? “

Stan responded, “Jeff, you can do whatever you want. You’re a proven winner in spite of this blip. If you want to be involved in politics, you can absolutely be involved in politics in the state of Utah. We need people in the private sector getting involved. We need to connect what is happening on the ground with the policy decisions in the political realms.”

Advice For People Wanting to Get Involved in Politics

When I asked Jeff what advice he would give to people thinking about going into politics, he was candid:

“Stay away. Don’t do it. I’m kidding right. Kind of. That’s my advice right now. Do something else. Do something different.”

I realized that obviously it was too soon to ask the question.

Then he offered his help to those interested in going into politics:

“Obviously if you want to get involved, I’m happy to be a resource. I’m happy to talk to people. I have a lot of interesting experiences. I have perspective that I can now share.”

Getting Started in Politics

A lot of people wonder about what the best place is to get started if you are interested in politics. Jeff offered this advice taking the first step:

“The caucus convention system remains a very interesting and grassroots place to cut your teeth to learn how things work. I think that’s a great place to start. Attend your neighborhood caucus meetings to become a delegate to understand how the process works and to lend your voice to the perspective.”

But before you make a run for office, you need to do your research:

“And if someone wants to run for office, I think it is critical that they talk to people that have done it before and it’s critical that they’ve got good help. Make sure you have good mentors. People like myself or Johnathon Johnson, other people who have come in from the outside and run a race.”

Understand that Politics is Like an Industry

Politics is like its own industry with its own rules and leaders and it can be difficult to know who to trust:

“Here is one of the hardest things that I underestimated and didn’t understand. There is a massive political machine that is like an industry that exists. That I did not understand at all  before I got into this. And that is hard to jump  from one network or industry, let’s say the business network and industry into this political industry where I may not know people. I don’t know who’s who. I don’t know who I can trust.”

“Every single person I spoke to was an expert. They said you’ve got to do this or that and by the way all the advice was conflicting. Without that experience it was very hard to know what voices to follow, where to go, what to do, where to spend money, resources, time, energy and effort. That is something that I would caution people coming from the inside is that you’re coming into an industry that you don’t have experience with.”

“When your campaign is over, they just jump to another campaign. They continue in their industry. They continue to grow. You come in and go out. They continue on. It is a machine. I understand that a lot better. That is something I would caution people about and make sure that they have a good understanding of.”

The Pandemic and Election

One of the most frustrating things of the election was how COVID19 impacted it but there was no intervention to fix things:

“We were in the midst of a global pandemic. Our state leaders because of politics did very little to ensure that voices were heard in this election. In the state of Utah, the people of Utah should have choices in the election. Why do we not want more voices to help the debate?”

“They did virtually nothing during a global pandemic. We are one of the few states to hardly do anything. I think that’s ridiculous. That’s really discouraging for an outsider.”

Difficult Learning Experience

Jeff shared some thoughts about our conversation and focused on the learning experience it has been.:

“This is the first long public conversation I’ve had. I don’t want this to be negative.  It has been an interesting experience. It has been a good learning experience for me personally. I hope that we’ve contributed to the race in a meaningful way. I’ve met good new friends all across the state. I have a better understanding of how I might be involved and make a difference for our state.”

However, even with the learning experience, it was a difficult struggle for him:

“This was the hardest experience of my life. I’ve built large businesses now from nothing. I’ve overcome some challenges. This is the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. I appreciate the disruption in my life. The discomfort that I’ve had experienced because of this. I plan to become more resilient and kind as a result of the discomfort I’ve had in this experience. I hope to be a mentor to a help to other good fresh voices that would like to join the process.”

Stan’s Experience with Disruption

Stan running for office

My experience with politics has taught me a few lessons about the power of disruption. I’ve run for office many times. I’ve won more often than I’ve lost. But I’ve lost a lot. And I still remember after being an incumbent on the Provo City Council. Everyone in my world said I would win in a breeze. I ended up losing that race. When I lost, I went home and I felt like getting into bed and not emerging for the next two weeks.

After a good night’s sleep and sleeping in the next morning, I got a call from a friend. He said, “Get up. Come to lunch with me.”

I grudgingly went to lunch. While we’re at lunch he tells me, “We’re going to a political event tonight.” And I said, “I don’t want to go to a political event. I don’t ever want to go to another political event.”

He dragged my wife and I to a political fundraiser for Olene Walker. As I started walking around and talking to the people I knew, it occurred to me that they didn’t care that I had lost the race. Those that were truly my friends did not care. There was a whole other group of people that did care. For one reason or another they wanted me to be in that office. They didn’t speak to me as much and I wasn’t on speed dial and I wasn’t getting the Christmas cards. But for my friends, which are a lot of people, they didn’t care one iota about whether I had won or lost that race. 

Just a few months later, I had the opportunity to go in another direction.And it wasn’t too many years later that I became Chairman of the Republican Party and I don’t think I would have had those opportunities if I had won that race. Doors open and doors close in politics.

 I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that we cannot let those things define us. What needs to define us is this notion of “I’m a husband. I’m a father. And I am helping others on a day-to-day basis succeed in various ways. And I’m looking for those that need my help and I’m trying to find opportunities to serve.” Those are the things that matter. Not so much this politic thing.

One day a friend of mine called me up. He said, “I have finally figured out why some people always seem to be a thorn in our side.”  He said he was talking to someone. It seems like you’re doing this 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The person said without missing a beat, “Yeah, I do this 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This politics thing.” It just blew his mind because for him and for them politics is a very small part of the rest of our lives. And yet for some people it is what defines them and who they are.”

I really took that to heart and I made a commitment that I was not ever going to get to that point where politics defined who I was and that I was thinking about it all the time. 

Taking the Focus Off Myself: After the Race

Jeff shared how one of the nicest things about being done with the race is putting the focus off himself:

“That is one of the things that has been a relief since I lost. During the campaign it is so much about yourself. And it has to be. During the campaign you’re the candidate. So it has to be about Jeff Burningham. It is almost 24/7. At least it was for me in the governor race. It has been refreshing to not have it be about me. I don’t want it to be about me.”

Putting the focus on others around him is helping him get through this difficult time:

“This is one of the reasons that I haven’t endorsed anyone yet. I don’t want it to be about me. I kind of want to fade into the background a little bit. What I’m busy doing. I’m embracing the pain and letting it change me hopefully in a good way.

“ I’m trying to focus on my family, my friends, my business partners.  I want it to be about them instead of being about me. That’s how races are. It is about the individual. It has to be that way. It can really distasteful. It feels good to be done with that.”

However, the lessons learned have been valuable, especially the opportunity for his kids to see him not succeed:

“I think it is good for my kids to see me lose and see how I react. Life is about losing. Getting knocked down and then getting back up and coming back better and stronger. So that’s the lesson I want to teach my kids.”

Stan’s Advice: Stay Involved in Government

Stay involved in some way. As much as we want to ignore government,the fact of the matter is that government has a huge impact on our lives. Even when we are saying we want it to be smaller, we want it to be less it still has a huge impact on our lives. Whether it is hard to break through those barriers. We need people like you getting involved, participating, being a part of what is happening in the fabric of this state. Government is a part of that fabric. 

Stan’s Lessons Learned and Insights:

Jeff talked about election reform and that’s fascinating to me because I want to have good elections in the state of Utah. I thought that his perspective as an outsider that maybe we need a different signature threshold was very interesting. I learned that his perspective as an outsider is that there’s this political insider’s club and that it is very hard to become involved when you’re not an insider.  

And as someone who is probably considered an insider, I’ve never really thought of it in that way. I’ve always kind of thought that we’re open and welcome all people who want to be involved. His perspective is that it is very very difficult. I need to ponder on that and figure out how to get better involved. 

Historically, we’ve always encouraged people to go to their caucus meetings and get elected as delegates. That is typically the entry point into being involved in politics, but maybe there’s more and I need to ponder on that a little bit. I hope you will too and let’s encourage our friends and our neighbors and those around us to participate in the political process because only when we participate can we ensure a strong government and prosperous futures for ourselves, our families, and our posterity.