Herbert to Lawmakers: Thanks for Funding Education

Posted By on January 28, 2016

Gov. Herbert says Lawmakers deserve thanks for education funding levels.

Originally published at City Weekly.

“The state of our state is outstanding,” said Gov. Gary Herbert Wednesday evening, kicking off his annual State of the State address before the Legislature. His half hour address included highlights of some of the past year’s accomplishments, as well as urging lawmakers to support the governor’s upcoming priorities.

Herbert opened with an education theme, saying “If you remember nothing else from my message this evening, remember this. Education is the most important investment we can make in Utah’s future.”

The governor touted the Legislature’s increases in education funding over the past few years, critiquing those who pan Utah’s last-in-the-nation ranking on per-pupil funding. “As I go around the state,” said Herbert, “I am often thanked by teachers, principals, parents and others for this extraordinary investment in Utah’s future. Members of the Legislature, I recognize that you often don’t get all the credit you deserve on this issue. On behalf of all 3 million Utahns from across this state, I am here to deliver a message that is long overdue. Thank you, members of the Legislature, for investing in our future.”

That didn’t sit well with legislative Democrats, long advocates of drastically increasing education funding. “We need to do a lot more,” said Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, in an interview immediately following the governor’s address. “When you look at how deep in the hole we are, we shouldn’t be so quick to pat ourselves on the back. Incremental moves aren’t enough.”

Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, disagreed with that assessment, saying, “Last year [we passed] the biggest education funding increase in a decade. … If that is met with nothing but contempt, and you say ‘we are as mad as we’ve ever been,’ that can breed cynicism, and that can leave a young lawmaker believing they can’t get in front of the conversations because even after we do these things we can’t show that we’re moving the needle.”

“Six years ago,” Herbert spoke, “our state found itself in the most severe recession since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate at the time was 8 percent. … [Today,] our state economy has added 219,000 new jobs, with an unemployment rate dropping from 8 percent down to 3½ percent today. In fact, in nine of the last 12 months, Utah had the highest job growth creation of any state in the nation.” Herbert also added that since his 2015 State of the State address, “businesses across our state have now added approximately 40,000 new jobs.”

Herbert did acknowledge, however, that many of Utah’s young people—particularly those from rural Utah—tend to leave the state to seek job opportunities elsewhere. Herbert noted that the Legislature has passed several pieces of legislation in the last few years to enable expansion of businesses in smaller towns.

But, he said, it’s not enough, and he implored lawmakers “to focus on these communities with renewed determination and resolve.” He asked legislators to remember that “it is our small businesses and large businesses and the tens of thousands of hardworking, productive Utah workers who create Utah’s economic success, and not the government.”

Herbert did take the opportunity to once again urge lawmakers to pass Medicaid expansion, although he avoided mentioning any specifics or strategies. “My friends in the Legislature,” said Herbert, “it is time to find a solution. This problem is not going to go away. This is too important an issue to ignore. Too many Utahns work hard and still have no health-care coverage.”

While the state Senate passed Herbert’s Healthy Utah proposal in 2015, none of the many Medicaid Expansion plans that have been proposed have managed to win the favor of the House Republicans. “There’s no way I want to finish a third session in a row with nothing on the books,” says Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, who more than any other lawmaker arguably has been leading the fight to expand Medicaid for the uninsured. Shiozawa says the entire Medicaid Expansion fight rests on House Republican leadership. “We need to get a plan that covers 100 percent of the coverage gap, and what I don’t want to see is something that only covers some of the people [without coverage], like the Frail Utah plan or something like it.”

 

Militias and Public Lands: A Utah Story

Posted By on January 13, 2016

How two right-wing movements became inseparably joined in Bountiful, Utah

Originally published at City Weekly.

Throughout the recent armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge building at an eastern Oregon federal bird-refuge, two ideological forces seem increasingly intertwined: the public-lands-takeover movement and the patriot (aka militia) movement. These two crusades evolved independently over time, but some see them as having been “married” two decades ago in Bountiful, Utah.

Ostensibly, the occupation was prompted by the jailing of the Hammonds, father and son Oregon ranchers who had attempted a controlled burn on public land. However, despite what many mainstream media outlets reported, the occupiers of the building are not Oregon ranchers or miners holding legitimate grievances with the federal government. Rather, locals in Burns, Ore., reportedly say the militiamen—including Ammon Bundy, the son of Cliven Bundy who caused a national incident in 2014 when he staged an armed standoff with federal officers after refusing to pay to graze his cattle on public lands—are primarily from out-of-state organizations demanding federal public lands be turned over to state and municipal governments.

Despite the broad media coverage, it’s difficult to determine who and how many individuals are inside the buildings. However, there are reports that members of several patriot-movement groups—Oath Keepers (and its sister organization, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, or CSPOA), and the Three Percenters—assisted in organizing the armed march that preceded the occupation. And, according to Spencer Sunshine, an associate fellow at Political Research Associates and independent writer/researcher who’s been on the ground in Oregon tracking the buildup of militia activity, it was the Three Percenters that organized the heavily armed convoy that on Jan. 9 surrounded the refuge buildings and claimed to be a buffer between the militiamen inside and law enforcement.

While locals reportedly were upset with the Hammonds’ jail sentence, at a packed Jan. 6 town-hall meeting, residents overwhelmingly voted to demand that the militiamen leave immediately. This was repeated on Jan. 11 when, at another town-hall meeting, local residents booed and jeered militiamen until they left the room, as seen in an online video.

It was the patriot/militiamen’s LDS faith and familiar “take back our lands” messaging that tied the situation back to Utah. The Bundys invoked their Mormon faith—with Cliven Bundy telling a group of supporters “The Lord told me … if (the sheriff doesn’t) take away these arms (from federal agents), we the people will have to face these arms in a civil war. He said, ‘This is your chance to straighten this thing up,'” As a result, the LDS Church issued a statement condemning the actions, saying “this armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis.”

Likewise, state Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who heads the Utah-based public-lands-takeover advocacy group American Lands Council (ALC), also tweeted his concerns, saying that armed takeovers are not the way to privatize public lands. But despite Ivory’s distancing himself from the Oregon armed occupation, the historical Utah connection between the public-lands-takeover movement and Far Right paramilitary organizations is hard to ignore.

Rep. Ivory’s controversial 2012 Transfer of Public Lands Act was only the latest attempt by Utah politicians to forcibly turn over public lands to local control for resource extraction and private development. Back in the early ’90s, the Utah Legislature was one of several to pass laws attempting unique and legally questionable tactics to stymie environmental regulations. It was known as the “Wise Use” movement, and was founded by former Dow Chemical consultant Ron Arnold in 1984. In the organization’s published paper “The Wise Use Agenda,” the movement’s founders laid out a series of goals that could be described as a wish list for resource-extraction industries, including opening all federal lands to logging, mining and off-road vehicle access.

The ’90s rhetoric of the Wise Use movement corresponds with the language of Rep. Ivory’s early websites from 2012, where he listed as a goal of his fledgling movement to obtain rights to the “subsurface mineral estate” of national parks. But, over the past three years, the ALC’s language has shifted, and it now drapes itself in environmental-protection language. It claims that public lands can only be cared for by the states and that the health of the land can only be protected by resource-extraction companies.

The multifaceted Wise Use movement established in the ’90s what was known as its “county supremacy arm,” or a branch of the movement that believed county governments, and particularly the county sheriffs, had supremacy over federal laws and law enforcement. What may surprise many Utahns is that the county supremacy arm was coordinated through the Bountiful, Utah-based National Federal Lands Conference (NFLC). In his book The War Against the Greens, author David Helvarg explains that with the Wise Use movement’s founder Ron Arnold serving on the advisory board of the NFLC, the Utah organization claimed that county sheriffs were the ultimate legal authority, possessing the power to arrest federal agents who “fail to respect the customs and culture of logging, mining and grazing on public lands.” PRA fellow Spencer Sunshine describes the ’90s militia movement’s membership as made up of conspiracy theorists, anti-abortion and Christian Right activists, right-wing libertarians, gun-rights activists and a minority of white supremacists. The NFLC quickly became a boiling pot for militia and even vigilante activity.

The NFLC was extremely vocal in its support of local armed militia groups, and, in so doing, reportedly caused no small headache for the LDS Church. In one of the NFLC’s newsletters, dated October 1994, the NFLC produced an article titled “Why There Is a Need for the Militia in America,” claiming that militias were constitutionally empowered to “enforce punishment” against federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms; the Environment Protection Agency; and the U.S. Forest Service.

The rhetoric fomenting in northern Utah reached such a level that LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks gave a speech in 1994 warning that LDS militia members’ “excessive zeal for one aspect of patriotism is causing them to risk spiritual downfall as they withdraw … from the governance of those civil authorities to whom our 12th Article of Faith makes us all subject.” Oaks doubled down on these statements again in 2012, when he expressed concern about “right-wing groups who mistakenly apply prophecies about the last days to promote efforts to form paramilitary or other organizations.”

The ’90s militia movement largely disappeared with the election of George W. Bush and the events surrounding 9/11, says Sunshine. Writing for The Progressive Media Project’s Progressive magazine, Sunshine notes that the new patriot movement exploded after the election of President Obama.

In comparing websites, it’s easy to see that many of the patriot-movement talking points are similar to those espoused by groups like the American Lands Council. In August 2015, City Weekly reported that a speech given by Rep. Ken Ivory to the patriot group Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association was filmed and used as a CSPOA promotional video. Ivory also signed a county supremacy-style resolution for the group under his official title as a Utah legislator saying that the “arrest of citizens or seizure of persons or property without first notifying and obtaining the express consent of the local sheriff” will not be tolerated.

While leaders of the current federal lands takeover movement may try to distance themselves from ties to the patriot movement, the overlap in ideology and membership are obvious. Ivory has strongly denied any connection to paramilitary organizations (in the City Weekly article, he likened his speaking at their events to giving an interview to NPR), but a number of county leaders in Utah, Nevada and other states who have who signed on as ALC dues-paying members are also members of the Oath Keepers, CSPOA or other paramilitary groups like the Three Percenters. On the Oath Keepers of Oregon homepage, there is a link to the American Lands Council alongside other Oath Keeper organizations.

Considering the strong anti-government stances of both groups, you have a recipe for ongoing armed occupations or standoffs based on the rhetoric of the public-lands-takeover movement.

Speaker Hughes to Appoint Babs De Lay to UTA Board

Posted By on December 31, 2015

Appointment follows three resignations in wake of Swiss controversy.

Originally published to City Weekly.

Speaker of the House Greg Hughes, R-Draper, says he will appoint longtime LGBTQ rights leader and local businessperson Babs De Lay to the board of the Utah Transit Authority (UTA). The move comes after three other board members resigned after their involvement in a controversial trip to Switzerland came to light in November.

“This was something I actually had in the works prior to the Switzerland reports,” Hughes says. Speaking to City Weekly from New York where he’s on vacation, Hughes says the changeup has been planned for months, since it became clear that Proposition 1, a ballot question in the last election that would have allocated more money to UTA, looked like it was going to fail. “As I watched Prop 1 in October look like it wasn’t going to pass in Salt Lake County— a county that has traditionally supported mass transit and transit infrastructure—I started wondering what that really meant.”

Hughes, who himself once served as the chairman of the UTA board, says that while he was with the agency he was “laser-like focused” on long-term planning. But with the defeat of Prop 1, he now realizes that “long-term planning doesn’t do much good if you don’t have public confidence in the bread-and-butter basic needs, service, and infrastructure we already have.”

Hughes says it’s a false narrative that now former UTA board member Sheldon Killpack—also a former state Senate majority leader—resigned because of the scandal around the Switzerland trip, but that Hughes has been looking for a shakeup on the UTA board and Killpack’s departure had been planned.

“I think Babs has a great eye for the system,” he says. “She works downtown, she lives downtown, she sees it, she uses it. She’s been on the [Salt Lake City] Planning Commission, she’s a businessperson. So on so many fronts, her leadership will be phenomenal for UTA.”

Hughes says he and De Lay have been friends for 20 years, meeting when Babs was looking at some properties downtown that Hughes, who works in construction and property management, was working on at the time. “Actually, at the inauguration for [former Gov.] Olene Walker, Babs and I joked that we should show up as a couple.”

“I feel really excited,” says De Lay, who also volunteers a community interest and gossip column for City Weekly. “I was a planning commissioner for Salt Lake City for eight years, and I found that one of the most interesting and educational times of my life, learning how my city runs and doesn’t run. And I think this will be a similar opportunity, only in a bigger way.”

De Lay acknowledges that UTA has had no small amount of bad press in the last decade, but describes the agency as “an essential part of the being” of Utah. “I may be the only [board] member who actually takes Trax, and I may be the only member who lives at a Trax station and is a user of the system. I’m a huge fan of public transportation and in my house we try to use Trax as exclusively as we can and not pollute.”

De Lay points to estimates that Utah’s population could double in the coming decades, and says if Utah’s public transit system can’t update and be as user-friendly and affordable as possible, not only will it stunt the state economically, but it could “return us to the ‘pea soup days’ of pollution when everyone was burning coal. We are all going to have to rely on public transportation in a major way.”

Some short-term changes she would be in favor of include free fares on days like New Year’s Eve, when getting party-goers out of cars and onto busses is critical. Also keeping service up and running during all holidays as well as late-nights and weekends. “I hope I can figure out the beast and help move it forward,” says De Lay, “because I think we’re all sitting on pins and needles wondering how transit is going to affect our lives as we move forward.”

Alex Cragun, vice president of the Utah Transit Riders Union—an advocacy group for more efficient and usable public transit—says the group is thrilled to have someone on the board who recognizes the problems a growing population has without sufficient public transportation. However, Cragun says, they do feel that the real estate development community is already over-represented, and they would like to see more board members with differing backgrounds.

 

Counting the Damages

Posted By on December 16, 2015

The Salt Lake County mayor’s victim impact statement alleges former campaign manager Justin Miller stole more than $79,000.

Originally published at City Weekly.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams claims that the alleged theft by former Rep. Justin Miller, D-Salt Lake City—who served as his campaign manager and high-ranking county employee—may be worse than what was originally charged in his criminal case. According to a victim-impact statement submitted by the McAdams for Salt Lake County Mayor campaign to the court, the McAdams campaign alleges that Miller actually embezzled $79,839.85—far greater than the previously reported $25,000. This is based on an investigation by the forensic accounting firm Norman, Townsend & Johnson, which was hired by the campaign.

In May 2015, City Weekly published stories and an audio recording between McAdams, Miller and political consultant Donald Dunn in which the mayor accused Miller of embezzling $25,000 of campaign funds when Miller worked as the mayor’s campaign manager and later as associate deputy mayor.

Miller would later launch his own counteraccusations against the mayor, claiming that McAdams had inappropriately awarded county contracts to supporters. Those accusations were later dismissed, and FBI spokesman Todd Palmer said in November that the agency had found “no evidence of wrongdoing” by McAdams.

Miller, on the other hand, was charged with a second-degree felony for obtaining money under fraudulent pretenses. On Oct. 9, Miller pleaded guilty to one count of communications fraud. He then resigned his seat in the Legislature.

“Miller’s criminal misconduct, willful misrepresentations and other deliberate misconduct during the time period from April 2013 through November 2014 resulted in direct financial losses in the amount of $79,839.85,” says the campaign’s statement, written by campaign treasurer Julie McAdams, the mayor’s spouse.

The campaign’s investigation claims that Miller made dozens of fraudulent charges. For example, he allegedly reimbursed himself $1,029 for a payment to Diamond Rental. The campaign says that payment was never made. In another instance, Miller allegedly reimbursed himself $3,300 for a voter contact database, but he was reimbursed for it twice, once from the campaign account and also from a political action committee that supported McAdams, where Miller also served as chief financial officer.

“Considering every reasonable offset or credit in Mr. Miller’s favor,” the statement continues, “including Mr. Miller’s partial repayment of $9,600, the total outstanding pecuniary damages to Mayor Ben McAdams and the Ben McAdams for Salt Lake County [Mayor] campaign is approximately $57,700.”

Miller is scheduled to be sentenced in 3rd District Court on Dec. 18. The McAdams campaign has proposed that if he pays back $35,000 by that day, it will not seek repayment of the additional expenditures in question. However, if Miller does not repay that amount by the 18th, the campaign will ask that the judge compel the full amount.

Calls to Miller for comment were not returned. When asked about the higher dollar amount alleged by the McAdams campaign, Miller’s attorney, Steven Shapiro, calls the $79,839.85 number “simply outrageous. It’s not supported by any of the evidence that’s been presented in the handling of this case. If [the McAdams’ campaign] thinks they’re going to get something other than anything related to the count to which [Miller] pleaded guilty, we’re going to have to handle that in a separate negotiation,” Shapiro said.

“We agree that [the $25,000] related to the count that he pleaded guilty to, we certainly owe restitution on that. But to the extent that they think they’re going to get something else … there has yet been any showing that he owes anything other than that,” he said.

Thus far, Miller has not agreed to the figures the McAdams campaign is claiming are to be repaid nor is there an agreement in place for how much restitution will be paid by the Dec. 18 deadline, says Assistant Davis County Attorney Steve Major, who is handling the case. “We’re trying to get the amount worked out,” says Major, “but my guess is that we’ll end up just having a regular sentencing hearing [on Dec. 18], and the restitution will get set for a hearing down the road. We’ve made the offer that if he pays [the $35,000] by the time of sentencing, we’ll reduce the charges to a third-degree felony, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Major also says that one of the concerns facing the prosecution are the new sentencing guidelines established by Gov. Herbert’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and the Utah Sentencing Commission. “Under the new system,” says Major, “Adult Probation & Parole looks at a case at the time of the plea … and they’ve decided Mr. Miller is low-risk, so their recommendation is court probation with a review every six months.” Major says that means Miller is unlikely to face any actual jail time.

The McAdams campaign says that it’s anxious to put the matter behind them, but, “given the breadth of Mr. Miller’s misconduct and violation of the public trust, we believe some jail time is warranted.”

Reached for comment, McAdams said, “I believe Justin’s actions represent a betrayal of the public trust, and embezzled funds from people who supported my campaign for Salt Lake County Mayor. Those people chose to participate in the electoral process, donating their personal funds to support my vision and my candidacy, and Justin betrayed their trust just as he did mine.”

Endless Litigation

Posted By on December 10, 2015

Lawmakers favor $14 million lawsuit against U.S. to gain control of public lands.

Originally published at City Weekly.

Utah should sue the United States. That’s the conclusion reached by the Davillier Law Group, hired by the Utah Legislature to investigate the feasibility of having the U.S. Supreme Court decide whether or not state government should control federal public lands.

In its 145-page report, delivered Dec. 9 to members of the Legislature’s Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, the law group wrote that while nearly every other legal opinion across the country has concluded that such an attempt has almost no chance of success, a recent Supreme Court decision sheds new light on the matter.

“Our country can only function properly when states are treated equally,” said George Wentz, a partner at Davillier, “and we saw that evidenced last year when the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.” That ruling invalidated provisions of the 1965 act targeting states with demonstrated track records of racial voting discrimination. The act required such states to get permission from the U.S. Attorney General’s office before altering state voting laws.

Wentz claims that the U.S. government’s retention of public lands in Utah “relegates Utah to second-class status,” because the state cannot tax or sell off those lands. “The idea that the federal government can hold onto these lands indefinitely is wrong,” Wentz added, “That power simply doesn’t exist.”

The report was eagerly received by lawmakers who have been trying since 2012 to take control of federal lands in Utah, when Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act.

But not all members of the commission were ready to accept the report at face value. Sen. Jim Dabakis and Rep. Joel Briscoe, both Democrats representing Salt Lake City districts, questioned the report’s motives. “I look at the [Davillier Law Group] lawyers listed here,” said Dabakis, “and I see all people who hold the same ideology.” He challenged the report’s authors to provide “the name of a single lawyer you worked with or talked to” who doesn’t represent the pro-public-land-takeover viewpoint. “This feels like we’re asking a barber whether or not we should get a haircut,” he said.

Ivory took umbrage with Dabakis’ comments, noting that in June, Dabakis had voted in support of contracting with Davillier. Ivory added that he believed Dabakis was trying to force partisanship into the issue.

“I don’t need lectures from [Rep. Ivory],” Dabakis fired back. “Not everyone agrees with him on this issue, and I’m representing the deep concerns of my constituents.”

Briscoe, meanwhile, pointed to a March 26, 2012 USA Today article that quoted Richard Seamon, an attorney working with Davillier, as saying attempts to take over public lands are “doomed to fail” and are akin to “civil disobedience” by lawmakers. Seamon responded that his comments in that article were specific to a similar attempt by the Arizona Legislature. The attempt failed, but he did not believe Utah would meet a similar fate.

One of the legal hurdles facing any potential lawsuit is Utah’s 1894 Enabling Act, which admitted Utah into the union. The act says that the people and state of Utah “forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries” of the state. But the Davillier Group thinks it can get around such language. “Utah’s [1894] Legislature had no authority to bind the 2015 Legislature,” said attorney Ronald Rotunda, who is working on Davillier’s team.

Despite Davillier’s optimism, their report does caution that any litigation would be “time consuming, expensive, and never certain in outcome.” In fact, the report estimates that even if Utah were able to bypass the Utah district court, the appellate court, and move the case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court through a legal process called original jurisdiction, the total cost to Utah taxpayers is estimated to be $14 million. “And let me be clear,” says Wentz, “estimates on time and costs to major court cases like this may be educated, but they’re still educated guesses.”

The report also predicts that even if Utah prevails, it’s unlikely that the Supreme Court would simply instruct the federal agencies to turn over the land to Utah. Instead, says the report, “a subsequent political solution negotiated by all stakeholders would most likely be required to resolve the issue.” It added that Utah ownership of these lands is only “a possible outcome.”

Rep. Briscoe questioned the lack of healthy debate about the report’s conclusions. “I’m concerned that this is being accepted without question,” said Briscoe, “that Utah could manage these lands better than the federal government. If you want me to accept that as fact, then show me. Show me how.”

The Democratic lawmaker also bristled at the price, “I’m stunned by the $14 million figure—imagine what else we could spend that money on.” Plus, if $14 million turned out to be a lowball estimate, Briscoe stated it was too much money to “gamble on unproven” legal theories.

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, who co-chairs the commission, said the price tag didn’t worry him. “Even if it grew to $50 million,” said Stratton, he still believes it to be worth the price because of the potential money Utah stands to gain if it gained control of the land.

A previous study commissioned by lawmakers, and conducted by the University of Utah, Utah State University, and Weber State University, concluded that even if Utah were able to prevail in the case, the cost of actually managing millions of acres of public lands without federal funds would cost the state roughly $280 million annually.

In the end, the commission voted 6-to-2 along party lines to have the Davillier Law Group send a draft to Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who will make the ultimate decision of whether or not to proceed with the lawsuit.

Reyes has already signaled he is open to moving forward with the lawsuit. Testifying before the commission last year, the Assistant Attorney General Tony Rampton told lawmakers that, while it may be “a tough case, it is a case that can be made.” The state’s top attorney had already concluded last year that the Equal Footing doctrine has the highest likelihood of success, and Rampton speculated that at least five of the nine SCOTUS justices might be open to hearing the arguments.

Running to the Right

Posted By on December 9, 2015

A new Utah Democratic group hopes to recruit more conservative rural candidates.

Published at City Weekly.

A new organization believes it has a winning strategy for rural Democrats in Utah: Lean to the right. The recently formed Utah Centrist Democratic Council aims to recruit candidates that promote a more conservative fiscal and social outlook to, as the council’s website says, “restore the Democratic Party as a viable Utah political party.” Although not officially associated with the Utah Democratic Party, UCDC is raising money and recruiting candidates with more conservative ideologies than their Salt Lake County counterparts to run in rural Utah.

“We want to show that Democrats are mainstream,” says Richard Davis, a BYU professor of political science and former Utah County Democratic Party chairman who co-founded the group along with Rep. Brad King, D-Price, as well as former House Minority Leader Scott Howell and others. “We believe in problem solving, and we want to show a different image than the party has with most voters in Utah.”

According to Davis, Democrats don’t win outside of Salt Lake County often because rural voters don’t like the party’s stance on so-called social issues. “I think if you ask voters what they think Democrats stand for, they’ll say, ‘[Democrats] stand for abortion and they stand for gay marriage,'” says Davis. “What we want to tell these voters is that we’re in sync with [them], and we’re more socially and fiscally moderate to conservative,” he says.

Being perceived as pragmatic problem solvers is key, Davis says, and he thinks that UCDC-aligned candidates need to portray a willingness to find common-ground solutions on issues such as the contentious push for states to take over and potentially privatize public lands.

Utah Democratic Party executive director Lauren Littlefield says the party doesn’t take issue with candidates whose stands differ from the party platform. “We’re never going to be the party who says, ‘You have to say this if you want to be one of us,'” says Littlefield. “I feel like they’re just another tool in the toolbox to help Democrats get elected.”

While Littlefield acknowledges that Davis “can talk to people that I can’t,” she also says she doesn’t believe that running to the right on social issues is going to win over voters. “We’ve seen some data on some of these social issues outside of Salt Lake County,” says Littlefield, “and while some people in this state may be grappling with their religious beliefs [over marriage equality], it’s the law of the land, it’s happened, and I think the less candidates talk about it the better.”

Regardless, Littlefield says, her organization has only one goal: to elect more Democrats. “So, if it works better in Utah County to have more conservative Democrats on the ballot, that’s great,” she says. “If it works in the Avenues to have a super-liberal candidate like [state Sen. Jim] Dabakis, that’s great too.”

Not everyone’s convinced that Utah Democrats can become more electable by shifting farther to the right, especially since Utah Democrats are already considered far more moderate than Democrats nationally. Longtime Cache County-based political strategist Jason Williams cautions that Democrats who create less distinction between themselves and Republicans may not only fail to attract GOP voters, but will discourage Democrats from turning out to vote. “There’s nothing new about this idea, Williams says, “and [going to the right] has watered down many Democratic candidates over the years, who then lost their campaigns.”

Williams points to former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Cooke, who ran against Gov. Gary Herbert in 2012. Cooke, he says, lost support from his party’s own voters when, on Davis’ advice, he held a press conference announcing opposition to same-sex marriage and reproductive rights. “If Democrats going this route can’t even get their own base excited and turned out to vote, what’s the point of trying to get Republican voters to flip for you?” Williams asked. “Davis has tried this before, when he was chair of the Utah County Democratic Party, and none of those candidates ever won a general election.”

Davis doesn’t agree that Cooke’s campaign lost because of Cooke’s more conservative positions. The campaign was already on the ropes, he said, because it was hugely underfunded compared to Gov. Herbert’s campaign.

If Democrats want to win more seats, Williams says, they should start looking to the example of Montana Democrats, “who faced a similar cultural conservatism,” but focused on getting their own base out to vote as well as attracting new voters.

“They got Brian Schweitzer elected,” says Williams, “who became one of the most popular governors in decades. And they did it by adopting stances on contentious issues that didn’t turn off Democratic voters and, at the same time, opened the doors for unaffiliated and independent voters.”

Who Gets to Vote?

Posted By on December 2, 2015

Utah’s GOP remains locked in battle with the state over who gets to pick candidates.

Published at City Weekly.

Who decides who will be on the ballot in the next Republican primary election? With the 2016 elections right around the corner, party bosses and the state are still locked in battle, trying to figure that out.

The current law is seen as a compromise between the Utah Republican Party’s convention-only system and the Count My Vote initiative drafted to create alternate routes by which candidates could appear on ballots. On Nov. 23, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer ruled that the Republican Party cannot be forced to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in their elections. However, candidates can still appear on the primary ballot through the signature-gathering process if those signatures are from registered Republican voters in that district.

Many thought Nuffer’s ruling would be the end of the issue, but now the party has signaled that it may not allow Republican candidates on the primary ballot, even if they’ve collected enough signatures to do so, unless those candidates also receive at least 40 percent of the vote from the party’s delegates at its convention.

A letter sent by the Lieutenant Governor’s Office to State Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, argues that the law requires any party registered with the state as a Qualified Political Party (QPP) must allow candidates on the primary ballot who either have gathered enough signatures from Republicans in their districts or received at least 40 percent of the delegate vote at convention—or both. Under existing code, the letter reads, “a QPP must allow candidates to collect signatures. The Utah Republican Party will not be in compliance with the [code] if it does not allow a candidate to collect signatures.”

In an email to his fellow Republican lawmakers, Weiler wrote that the party—at its Nov. 21 Central Committee meeting—may have been signaling it will not allow candidates to appear on primary ballots unless they have 40 percent of delegates’ votes, even if they have gathered the requisite number of signatures.

However, not accepting “signature candidates” could prove to be a mistake. If the GOP did refuse to allow candidates going the signature route, it could lose its status as a QPP, says Mark Thomas, chief deputy to Utah’s lieutenant governor and director of elections in Utah, “If a QPP doesn’t follow the rules, then the default is a Registered Political Party [RPP],” he says. And if such a downgrade were to occur, every Republican candidate in the state who didn’t collect signatures could find themselves removed from the ballot, because an RPP can accept only signature-gathering, not convention nominations.

“This is unprecedented,” says Tim Chambless, a professor of political science at the University of Utah who is also affiliated with the U’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “This is really all about political power. The Republican Party chair, James Evans, doesn’t want to lose power. He has the perception that the power should remain entirely within the party.”

Both the Utah Republican Party and the Lieutenant Governor’s Office have signaled that they want a new lawsuit to go before the Utah Supreme Court to settle the matter. But this now years-long dispute could be causing serious damage among average Utah voters.

“The reason [the Count My Vote initiative] had collected over 100,000 voter signatures is because there was a perception among a large number of Utahns that an injustice had been perpetrated,” says Chambless, “and that due process had been violated.” Specifically, Chambless points to the 2004 Utah Republican Party convention, when delegates removed Gov. Olene Walker; and 2010, when they did the same to U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett. Both candidates had been popular, with high approval ratings among rank-and-file voters.

“It was one thing to have the injustice occur once,” says Chambless, “but then to also have a very popular senator go down without the voters getting a say prompted the [CMV] initiative process. And now, we see the Republican Party going to court against the law that was seen by most as a good compromise, and getting a favorable ruling from one judge. So there are several aspects to this plot … and I think that the average voter is looking at the Republican Party nationally and seeing it in disarray.

“Then, they look here in Utah—supposedly the best-managed state in the nation—and see the Utah Republican Party involved in similar finger-pointing, and lawsuits, and division rather than unity,” Chambless says. “So what does that do? It angers voters, and they could very well just end up not voting.”