SALT LAKE CITY — Even though outgoing House Speaker Becky Lockhart is serious about her bid to become the state superintendent of public schools, the Provo Republican doesn't appear to be ruling out a run for governor.
"She's not afraid to put a bold idea out there and have it vetted. If people aren't ready for it, she's not afraid to move on to the next big thing," Lockhart's campaign consultant, Sherrie Hall Everett, told the Deseret News.
The two-term speaker had been widely seen as challenging Gov. Gary Herbert in 2016 until her surprising recent confirmation that she had applied to be the next state superintendent of public instruction.
Lockhart, who attracted attention to a potential race by labeling Herbert an "inaction figure" during the 2014 Legislature, declined "in deference to the state school board and the integrity of the hiring process" to comment on her political future.
In a statement, Lockhart said she "spent many hours pondering the possibilities and opportunities for me to continue to serve Utah and her residents" and trusted her application for superintendent would be considered on its "unique merits."
Lockhart is seeking to replace State Superintendent Martell Menlove, who announced his resignation in March but recently said he would not stay on as planned through the search process.
Hall Everett and others close to Lockhart said that doesn't mean she won't run for governor, though if the Utah State School Board does select her for the superintendent's job, that could mean delaying the race until 2020.
"Things don't always line up the way they have to, or the way somebody thinks they have to," Hall Everett said. "I don't know. It will be up to Becky what she decides to do and where she decides she can contribute."
Hall Everett, who calls herself a "marketing diva, politics and brand strategist," is the owner of Creative Stream Inc., which continues to be paid for campaign services to Lockhart even though the speaker is not seeking re-election to the Legislature.
Utah League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Ken Bullock, who is close to Lockhart, said the speaker was exploring a run for governor but has turned her attention to the state's top public education post.
"I know her focus is on the school superintendent position, not looking at governor. If she doesn't get that, I don't know what her plans are," Bullock said. "I don't think she's ruled out public service."
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said seeking the state superintendent's post as a stepping stone to higher office is "an unusual move" that's politically risky.
"If she doesn't get the job, then I can't imagine it would be helpful. It would be, in some sense, a loss on her record," Karpowitz said. "If she does get the job, the question is how soon does she turn around and run for governor."
That will likely depend on what Lockhart would be able to accomplish as superintendent, he said. If she's seen as a success, that becomes a centerpiece for a strong campaign for governor.
But there's also the possibility Lockhart falls off the public — and political — radar in the job.
"She's a talented politician. She knows the Legislature well. But that position would come with a different set of interests to try to satisfy and a different set of political and policy goals," Karpowitz said. "Trying to do that in a way that's public and gets you credit, that's a tall task."
What also makes Lockhart's bid for the superintendency unusual is that she is not an educator. Lockhart, who has served in the Legislature since 1998, has a nursing degree from BYU and has been a registered nurse and a hospital board member.
Lockhart does have experience with education issues from her years as a lawmaker, but last session her signature initiative to replace textbooks with computer tablets in Utah classrooms failed to win support.
"She has a great deal of passion about education and seeing how she can enhance the education experience for families and kids," Bullock said. "She has more than enough (experience) in areas where they have been lacking."
Steven Laing, a former state superintendent who coordinates the administrative supervisory certificate program for educators at Utah State University, said it's just a matter of time before the post goes to a politician rather than an educator.
"There are those who feel a politician might be a better fit. I'm not quite there yet, but I understand the argument," Laing said. "I don't know how it will end up this time, whether this will be the one that does it."
While an application for superintendent from a politician is novel for Utah, it's not uncommon elsewhere, he said. "In other parts of the country, there have been people who have used the state superintendency as a stepping stone."
Traditionally, elected school board members count on the superintendent to understand the ins and outs of the education system, Laing said.
"At the same time, there's a tremendous political element to leading the state system," he said.
School board member Jefferson Moss, head of the search committee for a new superintendent, said the board has contacted many sources in the search for candidates, including the Legislature.
"Multiple board members reached out to Becky and all of the Legislature, and the governor's office, and said, 'If you know good candidates, please ask them to apply,'" Moss said.
He said he sat in what he called large meetings with lawmakers and assured them that if they were interested, "we'd love to have you apply." The search committee is open to considering nontraditional candidates, Moss said.
"We wouldn't want to turn somebody down just because they hadn't spent their whole career" in public education, Moss said. A good superintendent should be politically savvy, visionary and able to rally people around them, he said.
Moss said he doesn't believe Lockhart's application will politicize the selection process.
"I can see the concern," he said. "It might create some out there in the community, some of the talking and things, but when it comes to the process, I feel very confident the board will look at each candidate on their own merits."
The board is not disclosing any information about applicants, Moss said, but will likely name the finalists, expected to be selected in September so a new superintendent can be voted on in early October.
The governor has said it is up to the school board to determine if Lockhart is a good fit for the superintendent's job. Herbert said the position is "open to anybody and everybody. It's not my decision to make. I'm not weighing in on it."
However, he also said during his monthly news conference on KUED Ch. 7 that the superintendent should have "a broad background" and that while being a teacher or an administrator has some benefit, "it's not the end-all and be-all."
Herbert brushed off a question about the impact of Lockhart's application on the 2016 governor's race.
"I don't know if she's talking about running against me in 2016 or if you've been talking about her talking about running against me in 2016," he joked, calling it too early to even be talking about the race.
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