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Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who has served for more than four years as Gov. Gary Herbert's closest adviser, announced Monday he will be leaving office.
Bell, a former real estate attorney, said the recession took a toll on his industry, creating financial strain. That and the need to shore up his footing for retirement he turns 65 next month prompted him to make the move.
"With those two pressures, my wife and I have decided it's time to step down and return to the employment market," Bell said. "The governor and I have worked through this. It is difficult to leave. He's been incredibly kind to me. … I'm a strong Gary Herbert supporter. I'm really one of his staunchest fans and will continue to be."
Herbert said he hopes to decide on a replacement by early October, in time to have the Senate confirm the new lieutenant governor in October or November. Bell will stay on until his replacement is in place. The job pays $104,000 plus benefits.
"I think he's doing what's in the best interest of his family and himself," Herbert told reporters Monday. "He obviously is going to leave a big hole in my team. … It's going to be hard for me to find somebody with those same kinds of talents going forward."
Bell said he recommended a list of about 10 to 12 people who he felt would be a good replacement, but wouldn't name them. Hebert said he has a list of three to five people of his own, and that could grow.
Buzz • The announcement touched off a wave of speculation in political circles, with several potential successors floated, including Kristen Cox, the head of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget; Herbert's chief of staff, Derek Miller; Spencer Eccles, the head of the Governor's Office of Economic Development; Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie; Natalie Gochnour, associate dean of the University of Utah's business school; Salt Lake County Councilman and Unified Fire Authority Chief Michael Jensen; and former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.
Herbert said he would look for someone who is a Republican "That's not negotiable," he said and has "correct principles" and a reverence for the office. Herbert said he would expect whomever he picks to be on the ticket with him in 2016, should he decide to run for re-election.
"I know he'll pick someone good," Bell said. "There's no one in the state who knows what being lieutenant governor is like more than Gary Herbert."
Herbert served in the role for nearly five years before becoming governor when Jon Huntsman accepted a nomination to be U.S. ambassador to China, and Herbert picked Bell to take over the office.
Bell was viewed at the time as a moderate voice who could manage relationships with the state Legislature.
'The other side' • "Because there was such a Republican domination, I felt like people from the other side of the aisle needed a voice and an ear," he said, "particularly the advocates for the poor and those who needed state services."
Bell said he also tried to emphasize the importance of ethics in government. As a senator, he sponsored several of the state's ethics laws that his office now enforces.
With Herbert's re-election last November, Bell led a team looking to overhaul the governor's Cabinet, and it was rumored at the time that Bell would depart, as well. Several top officials resigned or retired, but Bell stayed on.
For several months this year, he was the target of an investigation into whether he used his power in the office to influence a child-protection case involving a friend and member of his LDS congregation, but last month the Davis County attorney announced he would not pursue charges in the matter.
A former real estate lawyer, Bell came to politics as a city councilman and later mayor of Farmington before running for the state Senate and becoming assistant majority whip.
As lieutenant governor, Bell's duties included managing state elections and campaign and lobbyist disclosures, as well as having intimate involvement with a number of policy issues, notably public lands, energy, education and health care in the Herbert administration.
Kudos • Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he is also in the real estate business and understands how rocky it has been, but praised Bell's character, during their time together in the Senate and as lieutenant governor.
"I'm sure the governor's office will miss Greg. He's a great, ethical person. He has a great demeanor, and it's hard to find people like that who are politically oriented to fill those positions," Niederhauser said. "He has always been a pillar of good government as far as that is concerned."
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said Bell often served as the governor's liaison with the Legislature.
"It was surprising" to see him go, she said. "He's a great guy. Obviously, I worked with him when he was in the Senate, and I always enjoyed working with him."
Niederhauser said it's unlikely he would consider serving as lieutenant governor. Lockhart, who has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2016, said she would not be interested. "I'm very happy right now being the speaker," she said.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, who also serves in the Senate, thanked Bell for his service.
Bell said that he had one particular investment which he didn't name that had been hard hit by the economic collapse and has been slow to recover, demanding considerable time and resources to maintain.
He said that had left him in a position in terms of his retirement that he felt was untenable.
"I knew it would be a sacrifice financially," Bell said. "My wife and I agreed it was something we wanted to do, assuming along the way the market would improve and we could deal with these things."
Bell said he likely won't go back to practicing law and instead would look for a position with a strong policy role, adding that education is an area of particular interest to him.
"The [economic] speed bump we're going to hit is trained personnel. It's engineers, it's technology and computer-oriented, tech-savvy people," Bell said. "I think job one … for everyone in the state of Utah is to improve our public-education system."