- Associated Press - Friday, January 22, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The former head of a Utah medical staffing company on Friday became the latest candidate to challenge Gov. Gary Herbert’s re-election bid this year.

Democrat Michael Weinholtz said that he’s jumping in because he feels too many decisions in Utah are made by powerbrokers in the Republican Party, which dominates politics in the state.

Utah has not elected a Democratic governor since Scott Matheson in 1980, and Republicans have a supermajority in the state legislature and hold all statewide offices and congressional offices.

“Sure, it’s an uphill battle but I love being the underdog,” said Weinholtz, who is the chairman of the board at CHG Healthcare Services and is the company’s former CEO.

He made his campaign announcement at CHG’s headquarters Friday in front of cheering employees, Democratic officials and key LGBT activists.

Weinholtz said Herbert showed a lack of leadership by negotiating with the Legislature on whether the state should expand Medicaid instead of making the decision on his own, as other governors have done.

In addition to health care, Weinholtz said he’s going to focus his campaign on improving air quality and education, but he said he did not have details on those plans Friday.

Weinholtz has never run for office but moved in Utah’s political and advocacy circles for several years, holding positions on governing boards for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, United Way of Salt Lake and the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.

Last March, Weinholtz appeared before state lawmakers to testify in favor of a landmark law that protected gay and transgender people from discrimination in the workplace or housing.

Weinholtz said he and other business leaders felt that having a non-discrimination law would help them recruit top-level employees to Utah.

Herbert has the advantage of $1.4 million in his election campaign account and high approval ratings as the sitting Republican governor in one of the most GOP-heavy states in the country.

He served as Utah’s lieutenant governor until he became governor in 2009, when then-Gov. Jon Huntsman became the U.S. ambassador to China. If he is re-elected to another four-year term in 2016, he will be among the state’s longest-serving governors.

Herbert’s campaign manager Marty Carpenter said the governor will run on his strong record but is focused right now on doing the job voters elected him to do and preparing for the legislative session that starts Monday.

Republican challenger Jonathan Johnson, who is chairman of the board at Overstock.com, said he knows Weinholtz personally and while he disagrees with him on policy positions, he said it will benefit Utah voters to have two businessman trading ideas in the race.

Weinholtz will face a primary challenge from Vaughn Cook, the former Utah County Democratic Party chairman and CEO of a medical technology company.

Cook said Friday that he welcomes the crowded field in the governor’s race and said Utah needs a Democrat in the office to “counterbalance a lot of the one-party-rule that we suffer.”

He agrees it’s a tough climb for Democrats in the state but said, “You just can’t sit on the sidelines and complain if you think things need to be changed. It makes sense to roll up your sleeves and go to work.”

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