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Positioning himself as a political outsider with a record of success in the business world, Michael Weinholtz, the former head of a physician staffing company, is aiming to be the first Democrat in 36 years to be elected as governor of Utah.

"I've never run for office, and I think, frankly, that will be part of the appeal," Weinholtz said in a Tribune interview Thursday. "I think there's a mood, both in America and Utah, where people are fed up with the political status quo. And I think an outsider, successful businessperson and problem solver might be someone who appeals to those folks."

He becomes the third person to challenge Gov. Gary Herbert in his bid for re-election. Jonathan Johnson, the former CEO of Overstock.com is vying with Herbert for the Republican nomination, and Vaughn Cook, a former chairman of the Utah County Democratic Party, has filed to gather signatures to get on the party's primary ballot.

No Democrat has won the governorship since Scott Matheson was re-elected in 1980, and no Democrat has won statewide office since Attorney General Jan Graham won re-election in 1996.

Weinholtz, the current chairman of the board and former CEO of CHG Healthcare, said he was prompted to run by what he saw as a lack of leadership and accountability on Capitol Hill, stemming from the Republican Party's dominance of state government.

"It was a building frustration with the current system of government, the one-party system where there is no transparency, decisions are made behind closed doors without regard for other debate and the people suffer when there's not open debate," Weinholtz said. "So I felt like it was time for a change and time to bring a different message to people and get them excited about a more people-centric form of government."

Weinholtz was born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., working in what he called the "family business," the Chevrolet factory in town where his father, grandfather, uncles and cousins worked.

He enrolled in night school at Canisius College in Buffalo and then went to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., earning a business degree.

He founded two medical staffing companies in Florida and Texas, selling both before joining with partners 18 years ago, buying the Utah-based physician staffing company CompHealth. Today, CHG Healthcare has more than $1 billion in revenue and 2,000 employees, the largest physician staffing company in the United States.

For seven years, it has made Fortune magazine's list of the "100 Best Companies to Work For," finishing as high as third in the annual rankings.

Since moving to Utah, he has been involved in several community organizations, including serving on the boards of United Way of Salt Lake, the Salt Lake Chamber, Rowland Hall school and the Women's Leadership Institute of Utah.

But it is his role as president of the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah that Republicans were quick to use to paint Weinholtz as an unabashed liberal.

"It's good to see the Democrat Party be honest about what they stand for, and you have an authentic liberal running," said Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans. "They're being honest about their socialist, liberal leanings, so this should make for an interesting gubernatorial race."

Weinholtz said he doesn't see civil liberties or the causes defended by the ACLU as liberal or conservative issues.

"The ACLU is a nonpartisan organization that protects the civil liberties and freedoms of all Americans. They've protected the rights of Rush Limbaugh and churches," he said. "They've been painted over the years as a liberal organization because occasionally they represent someone conservatives think doesn't have the right to have civil liberties, but the truth of the matter is: This is America and it's freedom and justice for all."

In 2013 and again last year, Weinholtz spoke to the Utah Legislature on behalf of the Salt Lake Chamber and business community, supporting legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns in housing and employment — a bill that made it through the Legislature last year.

In 2013, he and his wife, Donna Weinholtz, were named "Allies of the Year" by the Human Rights Campaign. A year later, Donna Weinholtz was one of the "Capitol 13," who were arrested for blockading a legislative hearing to protest legislative leaders' refusal to hold a hearing on the anti-discrimination legislation.

"I was really proud of the fact that she made a personal sacrifice to stand up for what she believed in and stand by the rights of people who were being discriminated against," Weinholtz said.

"And, by the way, I believe the Capitol 13, their actions had a role in the Legislature next session finally hearing the bill, which is being touted as the Utah solution, and Gov. Herbert is very proud of that bill."

Weinholtz said his top issues will be improving education, the state's air quality and reforming health care ­— an issue where he said he has unique insight and expertise. He will reveal detailed policy proposals on those issues in the coming weeks, he said.

A multimillionaire, Weinholtz said he plans to raise money from donors, but will use his own personal wealth to "seed' his campaign startup and will "invest as much as necessary to win."

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

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