Utah Social Security Finally Relents – Grants Same-Sex Couples Benefits

Posted By on October 14, 2014

After denying benefits to legally married same-sex couples for over a week, SSA is now calling the couples and telling them to come back in.

1,300 same-sex couples were married in Utah between December 2013 and January 2014, during the brief window where marriage equality was legal before the U.S. Supreme Court imposed a stay on Judge Robert Shelby’s ruling that banning the marriages was unconstitutional.

That stay left the couples’ benefits, including federal marriage benefits like Social Security, on hold. But as of October 6th, when SCOTUS rejected 7 marriage cases, including Utah’s, LGBTQ couples were once again free to marry.

But as we have reported, while state agencies were ordered to immediately begin processing benefits equally, the Utah Social Security offices continued to deny couples–even when threatened with a federal lawsuit.

Salt Lake City Social Security Offices

Late Friday, October 10th, one of the newlywed couples received an email from Sean Brune, Regional Commissioner for the SSA. In his email he said:

Today we published policy update RM10212.035, Evidence of Name Change based on a US Same-Sex Marriage. This update instructs our offices to accept marriage documents issued to same-sex couples for marriages that took place on 10/6/2014 or later by jurisdictions (town, county or State) in the State of Utah as evidence of a name change. We are still awaiting instruction on marriage documents issued in Utah prior to 10/6/2014.

In other words, SSA would now accept same-sex marriages in Utah for couples married on or after SCOTUS’ 10/6/2014 decision, but the 1,300 couples married earlier were still on hold.

It now seems that last restriction has been lifted. “I just received a call from the Salt Lake City [Social Security] office,” says Austin Vance, who delivered a letter threatening the federal lawsuit from his lawyer to the SSA offices last week. “They told me they have just released a new directive, and we can now go in, confirm our address, and they will issue us the new [Social Security] cards.”

Calls to several of the other previously-denied couples confirmed that they received similar calls.

Social Security has continued to refuse to comment on why or how the delay happened. Clerks had told the couples that they “needed to figure out the process,” but given that SSA uses a federal database that was updated 15 months ago to accommodate for legally married LGBTQ couples, that explanation makes no sense.

 

Eric Ethington has been specializing in political messaging, communications strategy, and public relations for more than a decade. Originally hailing from Salt Lake City, he now works in Boston for a social justice think tank. Eric’s writing, advocacy work, and research have been featured on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, the New York Times, The Telegraph, LGBTQ Nation, and The Public Eye magazine. He’s worked as a radio host, pundit, reporter, activist and electoral campaign strategist. Follow him on Twitter @EricEthington. He also writes at NuanceStillMatters.com

Utah Same-Sex Couple Threatens Social Security With Lawsuit Over Denied Benefits

Posted By on October 10, 2014

Same-sex married couples in Utah are still being turned away at Social Security offices statewide, despite five days passing since the U. S. Supreme Court decision which overturned Utah’s ban on those marriages. At least one of those couples is now threatening a federal lawsuit if they are not granted their legal benefits.

Austin and James Vance, who were legally married back in December of 2013, hand-delivered a letter today from their attorney to the Salt Lake City Social Security office, notifying them that if they did not grant their legal benefits, and issue them new social security cards as they are required to do for married couples, the office could be facing a federal constitutional rights lawsuit.

The letter, drafted by SLC attorney Danielle Hawkes, condemns the Utah Social Security Administration (SSA) for dragging their heels on an issue she says should have been resolved a long time ago.

“The law on this issue has been clearly established for fifteen months, giving the agency ample opportunity to correct its discriminatory practices. In June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor held that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, […] On October 6, 2014, the United Supreme Court refused to hear Utah’s appeal of the Kitchen Herbert case. At that point, the 10th Circuit’s holding became law for the State of Utah. […]”

James and Michael Vance

James and Michael Vance

But instead of accepting the letter and issuing the benefits, the Vances were handed a written Memorandum from SSA, claiming that more time is needed to streamline procedures for issuance of SSA Cards, eligibility and benefits.

Hawkes says that’s nonsense. “The SSA system is federal, and it’s the exact same system as every other state that has already implemented these changes. … This is demeaning and demoralizing, plain and simple.”

After the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision late last year, the U. S. Department of Justice sent a memo that instructed all federal agencies to grant equal marriage benefits to legally wed same-sex couples. In Utah’s case, those benefits were put on hold for the 1,300 couples who married in December of 2013, while the Supreme Court weighed whether to take the case. But once the case was rejected by the high court, and the stay was lifted, benefits should have been immediately available.

The disparity in overseeing of federal benefits was also echoed by U. S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, (Democrat – California), in a letter to the Obama administration Thursday, writing, “same-sex couples who paid into the system like everyone else, or who served in the military, continue to be denied the equal benefits they have earned.”

An attorney for the SSA Friday refused comment other than to state that SSA officials will fully comply with federal guidelines and laws. The attorney refused, however, to say when that would happen.

“The bottom line here is that this is either a procedural issue, in which case it’s unjustified and needs to be corrected today,” says Hawkes, “or this is animus from Social Security, and that’s unconstitutional and needs to be remedied immediately.”

Long View: Why SCOTUS’ Same-Sex Marriage Decision Was Only Proper Option

Posted By on October 8, 2014

No matter which side of the issue you’re on, the Supreme Court’s decision to reject the seven same-sex cases that had been submitted was the only proper option.

*Originally published on New Civil Rights Movement

Under normal circumstances, the loser of a case at the state level might appeal that ruling to the appellate level, as happened when Utah’s Judge Shelby ruled Utah’s ban on same-sex marriages were unconstitutional and the state appealed to the 10th Circuit Court. If the circuit court takes the case and rules the same way, the loser has the option to appeal the case again to the U.S. Supreme Court—again, as happened in the case over Utah’s Amendment 3. The Supreme Court then decides whether or not to take the case and either uphold or override the lower courts’ rulings.

But in the same-sex marriage cases, things worked different. It wasn’t just the Utah case the Supreme Court was looking at, it was seven different cases from states around the country. And in each of those cases, the appellate courts overseeing them all ruled that denying same-sex couples their right to get married is unconstitutional.

Seven identical rulings. That’s an unusually huge (and historic) body of rulings for the Supreme Court to be presented with.

Could SCOTUS have taken up the case? Yes. But because the high court oversees the entire country, their rulings have much wider impacts than do state or appellate courts. If SCOTUS had upheld the lower courts’ rulings, it would have automatically legalized same-sex marriages nationwide. Same thing if they had overturned the lower courts, it would have effectively banned same-sex marriage in all states that haven’t legalized same-sex marriage through their legislatures.

Until an appellate court rules in favor of a ban on same-sex marriage (if that ever happens), the Supreme Court has no motivation to take up the case. It’s all about the process, and we have no doubt that the Justices will allow the remaining cases (there’s at least one in every single state that still has a ban in place) to move through the system at their own pace, allowing each judge to make their own decision.

So while some on both sides of the issue may be lamenting the court’s decision not to act, there really was no other proper option.

Marriage equality should be legal, period. And I’m sure I would be making a different argument if there weren’t a case pending in every non-marriage equality state. But with all those cases going, this way may take a bit longer but it makes it a virtual impossibility for to ever be reversed.

Secession and Nullification? Two Utah Legislators Advocate 4th Branch of Government

Posted By on October 3, 2014

Utah State Representatives Brian Greene (left) and Marc Roberts (right)

Utah State Representatives Brian Greene (left) and Marc Roberts (right)

**This article originally appeared on Utah Political Capitol

Should the United States have a 4th branch of government? One with the power to overturn and nullify all others? According to two sitting Utah legislators, Representatives Brian Greene (Republican – Pleasant Grove) and Marc Roberts (Republican – Santaquin), yes.

Tuesday evening, the two junior members of the Utah Legislature joined a national conference call and radio program advertised as “The place Tea Party Americans come together,” hosted by right-wing strategist Charles Kacprowicz. The two Utah Republicans spoke in favor of a constitutional convention, more commonly known as a Con Con, where state legislators representing less than one in five Americans could vote to nullify any law or judicial ruling.

“I’m encouraged by the growth in interest in a [constitutional] convention. I’m here to do whatever I can to move this forward,” said Greene, who began his time in the Utah House of Representatives in January, 2013. The young attorney is perhaps best known for his attempt during the 2013 legislative session to pass a bill that would have made it a felony for any federal law enforcement officer, such as an FBI SWAT team, to enforce federal gun laws in Utah. The legislature’s general counsel loudly cautioned that the bill was unconstitutional, but it still passed the House that year by a vote of 49-17 before dying in the Senate.

“The best chance we’d have of doing this is the first time. After that, there will be more resistance from the other states.” -Representative Brian Greene

Kacprowicz leads a movement on the Tea Party-aligned Right who are searching for a way to nullify federal laws and court decisions they disagree with, such as Obamacare and Roe v. Wade, but without opening the door for liberal state legislatures to be able to overturn the federal laws and SCOTUS rulings the Left disagrees with, such as the controversial Citizens United decision which opened the door for unlimited corporate campaign contributions. State-based nullification attempts are most often linked to Neo-Confederate secession groups (the number of them in the Rocky Mountain region have been growing), but the attempts have been quickly overturned by the courts who point out that Article VI of the constitution clearly says that the United States Constitution trumps any laws states may pass.

The solution, Greene, Roberts, and Kacprowicz say, is to organize a Con Con where legislators from each state join together to vote to overturn federal laws and rulings. But unlike Congress, where states are given a number of seats according to their population, this version of a Con Con would give every state the same number of votes. So although California has over 38 million people, they would only have the same voting power as Wyoming with its 576,000 residents. That enormous shift in the balance of power could theoretically allow representatives of only 16 percent of the U.S. population to call the shots and dictate the course of both domestic and foreign national policy.

“The best chance we’d have of doing this,” says Greene, “is the first time. After that, there will be more resistance from the other states. So it’s imperative that we take as big of a bite of the apple as possible the first time around, rather than just taking nibbles with individual amendments.”

“I’ve got a DVD on my desk titled ‘Beware of Con Cons’ from the John Birch Society. Traditionally they are with us on constitutional issues. But on this they’re scared for some reason.” -Representative Marc Roberts

“Brian and I are on the same page with this,” Roberts added, who joined the legislature in the same 2013 freshman class as Rep. Greene. “We’ve only got one shot at this, and if it works it’ll be that much harder to do again. It’s difficult to get nullification through.”

The idea has received significant opposition from not only the Left, but even conservative organizations which are frequently associated with the “fringe,” such as the John Birch Society (formed in 1958 to counter the civil rights movement, which it called a conspiracy to create a “soviet negro republic”) who say that if the Right can overturn laws and rulings they don’t like, so can the Left.

Representative Roberts laughed at the Birch opposition to a Con Con. “I’ve got a DVD on my desk titled ‘Beware of Con Cons’ from the John Birch Society. Traditionally they are with us on constitutional issues. But on this they’re scared for some reason. It’s kind of like the Disney movie ‘It’s a Bug’s Life,’ when those little ants realized that there were more of them than the grasshoppers, they were able to run over the grasshoppers. When the John Birchers tell us to just nullify, we’re happy to. But we need something stronger, like this.”

“It’s unfortunate that our friends at the John Birch Society and even our own [conservative] scholars are against us on this.” Kacprowicz added. “They just don’t get it.”

Utah Political Capitol reached out to Utah House Majority Whip Greg Hughes (Republican – Draper) after the call, who told us that the Con Con issue is a divisive one among the GOP nationwide. “People are really worried about a Con Con getting out of hand. It’s kind of turning into a circular firing squad among Republicans.”

Greene told the audience of mostly supporters that one of the things he’d like to accomplish with a Con Con is a complete state takeover of all federal lands within Utah, a proposal which was put forward and passed by the legislature a few years ago by Representative Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan), which was also flagged by the legislature’s attorneys as potentially unconstitutional. Currently, Utah is attempting to defend the policy in federal court.

Greene criticized Ivory’s strategy to use the courts to try and gain access to federal lands (which the state of Utah could then sell to private owners, corporations, or oil and gas companies), saying “The deck is unfortunately stacked against us, because the courts tend to side with the [United States] government. So we’re spending tens of millions of dollars on these cases, where we don’t get anything out of it.” Greene says a Con Con would be the better way to go to force the United States to turn over public lands.

“Nullification follows a pre-Fourteenth Amendment view of Constitutional law, before due process and equal protection were extended to cover the behavior of the several states.” -researcher Rachel Tabachnick

Kacprowicz also pointed out a recent article by Salon, which quoted researcher Rachel Tabachnick’s piece entitled “Nullification, Neo-Confederates, and the Revenge of the Old Right,” which says that “nullification follows a pre-Fourteenth Amendment view of Constitutional law, before due process and equal protection were extended to cover the behavior of the several states.” She also points out that this latest attempt for a Con Con is by far not the first, and that in the past the idea of calling such a convention has been used for causes including overturning federal gun laws that prohibit private citizens from owning tomahawk missiles, to imposing Christianity as an official state religion.

But none of the opposition from the Left or the more traditional Right seems to be slowing down the two Utah County Republicans. At the end of the call, Kacprowicz offered them both a position on the national steering committee to advance the nullification movement.

“Sign me up!” Greene quickly replied.

“I’d also be very interested, and am happy to be involved,” Roberts added.

“[Senate] President Niederhauser has been going to some of these meetings to help decide what the rules of such a convention would be.” -Speaker Becky Lockhart

So could a Con Con for nullification and the creation of what would essentially be an all-powerful 4th branch of government really happen? UPC asked outgoing Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart (Republican – Provo) what kind of support the idea has among the Republican-dominated Utah legislature. “The issue of having a convention is getting more and more attention and support,” Lockhart told us. “There is usually a bill run every five years or so calling for a [Con Con].” She also said it’s not just Utah Republicans who are warming up to the idea, and it’s gaining traction with conservative state legislators around the country.

The last time a bill calling for a Con Con was proposed in Utah was in 2011 by Representative David Clark (Republican – Santa Clara), who later resigned mid-term to join Zions Bank as a Senior Vice President. The bill died in the House without receiving a full vote.

But despite that legislation’s lack of success, some of Utah’s most powerful politicians may still be in favor of the idea. “[Senate] President Niederhauser has been going to some of these meetings,” says Lockhart, “to help decide what the rules of such a convention would be.”

Hughes also said he thinks a Con Con would be “appropriate,” but added that it’s not a priority for him. “I just don’t see the point of running forward with this.”

Although Lockhart declined to say whether or not she personally supports a Con Con, she did respond to Rep. Greene’s statement that the legislature’s lawsuit to force the U.S. government turn over all federal lands to Utah—a move she is personally in favor of—is a waste of tens of millions of dollars. Lockhart called that “interesting.”

Anti-LGBTQ Groups Call for Moderation in Utah, But Overseas They Seek Criminalization

Posted By on September 21, 2014

There is no question that the American public has moved pretty decisively onto the side of equality for same-sex couples and their families. So when the anti-LGBTQ families crowd gets in front of Utah press or any other American media outlets, they typically work hard to keep their rhetoric from getting too far outside of the acceptable limits. But when these same people get outside of the country, and away from U.S. reporters and cameras, it quickly becomes apparent  just how far they’d want to take their agenda in the U.S. if they could.

This past Friday and Saturday, the Utah affiliate of Arizona-based Family Watch International hosted a two day anti-LGBTQ gathering under the name “Stand For The Family Conference.” And the international culture warriors and exporters of homophobia and sexism came to play.

Friday featured an anti-marriage equality rally, which landed them in some hot water when organizers projected unauthorized images of actual same-sex Utah couples and their children onto giant screens, mocking them for not being “real” families.

Rightly so, the backlash was severe as outraged parents condemned such base attacks on their families and violating their privacy and using images of their children for smearing purposes. Marina Gomberg, interim Executive Director of Equality Utah released a strong statement condemning the photos’ use and saying “Our families are not your propaganda!”

“We are deeply concerned after learning that photos of our community members with their bright and beautiful children were used as anti-marriage equality propaganda at a rally at the Utah State Capitol yesterday.

It is a disgrace to use our families for a misguided and debunked view of what is best for children. It is one thing to disagree with the freedom to marry, it’s quite another to go after loving parents and their children at a political rally. That is not an example of the family values in which Utahns take deep pride.”

So just who are these people who spoke at the anti-LGBTQ families conference in Utah this week? So much media coverage is devoted exclusively to he-said/she-said, but that dichotomy gives little context, and it’s critical to understand precisely who is involved and their true agenda.

Brian Brown

Brian Brown

Brian Brown

Brian Brown is best known as the current President of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). A Quaker turned Roman Catholic, he’s been a key player in the anti-equality movement for over two decades, and is infamous for his tendency to compare LGBTQ people to pedophiles.

But despite these (comparably) smaller shenanigans, Brown’s rhetoric overseas is something else altogether. Brown and NOM have worked extensively with the Illinois-based World Congress of Families (Mormon apostle Dallin H. Oaks sits on the board) to export the U.S. culture wars to Russia, and had a strong hand in the creation of the 2013 law that makes it a criminal offense to say anything even remotely positive about LGBTQ people in public.

This severe limit on free speech applies to everyone from protesters to radio and tv newscasters, and comes at a time when Russian LGBTQ people are being literally hunted down on the streets, beaten, and tortured by maurading gangs who call the practice “going on safari”—posting their exploits on the internet. (The BBC put together a frighteningly-vivid documentary about the sickening practice, called “Hunted.”)

Just last week, Brown was in Moscow with the World Congress of Families when they voted to approve a resolution calling for a Russia-style law criminalizing pro-LGBTQ speech all over the world.

Kimberly Ells, Sharon Slater, and Family Watch International

Sharon Slater

Sharon Slater

Kimberly Ells is the president of the local chapter of Family Watch International (FWI), and Sharon Slater is the president of the entire national group. Both spoke at the Saturday session of the anti-LGBTQ conference.

Slater, a Mormon, founded FWI in 1999, and is based in Gilbert, Arizona. She presents herself as a humanitarian and advocate for women, children, and families, but her international work is anything but.

Since 1999, Slater has been working in Uganda, Nigeria, and other African nations to advance conservative ideologies that idealize the nuclear family as the antidote to all societal ills.

Slater was also one of the many U.S. conservative culture warriors directly involved in the creation of both the “Kill the Gays” law in Uganda, as well as the Nigeria anti-LGBTQ law which was carbon copied from the law passed in Russia (it took it a step farther, however, including punishments of up to 14 years in prison for being gay).

Slater and Family Watch International also work extensively at the UN, seeking to block any resolutions that are even remotely pro-LGBTQ, pro-reproductive autonomy, or pro-comprehensive sex ed.

Mary Summerhays & Stand For The Family

Mary Summerhays

Mary Summerhays

Summerhays, the speaker who used the photos of the children and their parents at the Friday rally, actually works for the Witherspoon Institute. Witherspoon is the conservative think tank which commissioned and funded the thoroughly de-bunked Mark Regnerus Study, which had the express task (as mandated at the Heritage Institute conference where it was conceived) of proving that LGBTQ people are bad parents. Regnerus was unable to prove such a conclusion with data using actual LGBTQ parents, so instead he compared the children of stable two-parent families to the children of single-parent households (regardless of sexual orientation) to draw his specious conclusion. Over 200 Ph.D.’s from around the country signed a letter condemning the methodology and conclusions of the study, and after extensively questioning Regnerus on the witness stand, Michigan Judge Bernard Friedman ruled “The court finds Regnerus’s testimony entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.”

The founder and head of Witherspoon Institute is Robert P. George, who also sits on the editorial board of Utah’s own Deseret News (so it comes as no surprise as to how the News was the first outlet to report on the Regnerus study). George also co-founded the National Organization for Marriage, which has been found guilty by several judges in different states of purposefully misleading voters and for failing to disclose where the millions of dollars they’re putting into anti-LGBTQ ads and commercials is coming from.

George was also the author of the Manhattan Declaration.

The conclusion of all of this should be simple. When we get nothing but a repetition of what they say vs. what we say, nothing changes. We must work better, smarter, and quicker to show who these people truly are, and what they try to accomplish when they think no one is looking.

Sutherland Institute & Religious Right Orgs Create False “Religious Liberty”

Posted By on August 22, 2014

image source

image source

Do the principles of religious freedom (a.k.a. religious liberty) mandate exemptions from employment and workplace non-discrimination laws? According to many conservatives in Utah, yes. But while these Religious Right leaders claim to be championing the rights of the religious, their theocratic redefinition of these important concepts leave every individual at risk.

Less than a few weeks after the Salt Lake City Council passed Utah’s first non-discrimination law in November of 2009, prohibiting employment and housing discrimination on the sole basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, the local affiliate of the State Policy Network, Sutherland Institute, began a full-blown press push for what they called “religious exemptions.” According to Sutherland president Paul Mero, business owners and apartment complex owners who had personal religious objections to LGBTQ people should be exempted from the new law and allowed to fire LGBTQ people from their jobs or evict them from their homes without consequence.

This religious exemptions argument was not unique to Mero and Sutherland, but was part of a nationwide undertaking by Religious Right leaders—particularly from the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF, now doing business as Alliance Defending Freedom, which rose to prominence providing legal counsel and defense for Prop 8 in California—to begin using this new strategy more aggressively. The same argument had been used to attempt to derail civil rights laws several decades ago by the precursors conservative organizations to Sutherland, ADF, and the Heritage Foundation, such as the racist John Birch Society. The arguments had failed back then, but with new packaging and better PR spin, the Right predicted that they could have much more success today. And they were right.

The arguments have taken hold and while every year more conservative Republicans in Utah seem to resign to the inevitability of the passage of a statewide version of the non-discrimination laws (every reputable poll shows roughly 73 percent support for the laws among the public), almost without exception you can hear each of them call for a change to the language of the proposed law, allowing for such religious exemptions.

Sutherland Institute themselves launched a new initiative this last year as a kind of last-ditch-effort to slow the inevitable passage of the bill. Presented as a coalition of Religious Right organizations, Sutherland partnered with the local affiliate of the Eagle Forum, as well as the local affiliate of Family Watch International (one of the conservative evangelical organizations involved in the creation of the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda and other African nations) to form “FairToAll,” which they use to attempt to hammer home their claims about the nature of religious liberty.

It is no coincidence that the website for this new group was registered by none other than the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, which was not only involved in Prop 8, but also the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS case, and was also one of the primary authors of the infamous Arizona “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which would have allowed business owners to use supposed faith objections to not only discriminate against LGBTQ employees but to also reject LGBTQ customers as well. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to guess that ADF provided much of the funding for the FairToAll project, which included weeks of expensive prime-time television ads (one of which Sutherland was forced to take down for outright lying about the bill forcing BYU to allow mixed-gender dorm rooms).

So with such a massive buildup, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, and a nationally-coordinated campaign to promote religious exemptions, is there actually anything to their claims.

According to Tarso Luís Ramos and Fred Clarkson of the nonprofit Political Research Associates, the religious liberty claims Utah conservatives are putting forward are deeply twisted versions of the what the nation’s founders put forward.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” The First Amendment to the Constitution begins with this foundational defense of individual conscience against the edicts of religious institutions backed by the coercive power of government. We may have different views of how we can protect religious liberty for the sake of everyone, but until recently there has been a rough consensus that religious liberty centers primarily on maintaining the rights of individuals.

This foundational principle, and our common understanding of what it means, is facing a sustained, coordinated attack from leaders of the religious right, who insist that businesses have the right to discriminate against employees and customers according to their owners’ religious beliefs. This redefinition of religious liberty effectively transforms the Framers’ shield against religious tyranny into a sword institutions can wield to impose religious dictates on individuals in the marketplace.

In other words, Utah conservatives are attempting to take the principle meant to protect each and every individual’s right to believe (or not) as they see fit, free from pressure or coercion from a state-backed institution, and give it solely to business owners and landlords by endowing them with the right to use claimed religious beliefs to harm others who do not conform to their personal religious views.

The true principle of religious freedom is already built-in to the non-discrimination lawsallowing for LGBTQ employees and tenants to live without harassment, while business owners and landlords are remain free to believe whatever their conscience or religion dictates.

Isn’t that how a society based on religious pluralism supposed to work? We are all allowed to believe as we will, as long as we don’t use those beliefs to harm others?

Utah Democrats Could Learn a Lesson From Massachusetts Republicans

Posted By on August 16, 2014

mass and utahUtah Democrats and Massachusetts Republicans have a lot in common, both hanging on by a thread in states that heavily lean the other way. Democrats in Utah hold only 18 percent of the seats in the state legislature, and in Massachusetts the Republicans control only 16.5 percent. Both of these two super-minorities also face the same frequent infighting debates over whether it’s better for their candidates to boldly campaign on their Party’s ideals, or if they should present themselves as more a “lite” version of the other. But there remains one major difference: While Utah Democrats haven’t held a single statewide office since 2001 (when Democratic Attorney General Jan Graham retired), Massachusetts Republicans manage to win the big races semi-regularly, and have a decent prospect of reclaiming the governor’s office this year.

So what is the big difference between the two groups? It’s all in the campaigning. Identify a problem, help voters understand how it hurts them, illustrate how your opponent will make it worse, and provide a solution.

Any state where a single Party controls a super majority is going to have scandals. It’s inevitable. Typically they’re pretty minor, but the perception of corruption in any form is the perfect opening for a candidate who knows what they’re doing.

Take Mitt Romney’s 2002 gubernatorial race. It was his second attempt to run for office (he was thrashed when he ran against Ted Kennedy for the U.S. Senate seat in 1994), and he had severely damaged himself early on in the race when, after polling showed people found him out-of-touch with the working class, he released a series of ads showing him spending a day working in different professions—donning different outfits to herd cows and bale hay, unload a fishing boat, and haul garbage. Needless to say, working people found the ads extremely offensive, as he reduced their lives to little more than costumes.

Independent polling showed Romney losing as late as mid-October, only a couple of weeks from the election. But then something changed. His campaign began releasing new ads going after the Democratic candidate (who was the State Treasurer) for a minor-scandal that had hit earlier in the year that involved state pension funds doing badly in the stock market. The ads showed a tired and worn-out old hound dog that told voters that their “watchdog was asleep on the job.” The series of ads ran over and over, and Romney’s campaign workers talked about it at every door they knocked on. Taking it even further, he began going after his opponent’s husband, a former lobbyist, by attaching his name to the national Enron scandal.

The pension fund scandal really wasn’t that major. The investments the funds were in had performed poorly, but not so badly that they couldn’t recover relatively quickly. But that didn’t matter to the Romney campaign. They made it hurt, they talked with voters about how if they were to try and retire the day after the election, they’d be missing a good chunk of the money they were counting on.

The success of the tactic showed on election day, and Romney’s Republicans took the governor’s mansion.

Contrast that to Utah, which is still in the middle of the biggest political scandal to hit the state in decades (and likely the biggest in our lifetimes). Not a single person in the state hasn’t heard about the major embarrassment and (alleged) criminal activity of Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow. These two were some of the highest ranking Republicans in the entire state. Their dealings encompassed legislators, party officials, congressmen, mayors… there is literally no end in sight to how far this could potentially go. And yet, it seems like you have to pull teeth to hear any Democratic candidates talk about it other than vague “we need to clean up…” phrases. Why not make it hurt?

To be clear, I’m not talking about any one candidate in particular. Nor am I talking about all Democratic candidates in Utah (there are many who are doing a marvelous job). But in general there does seem to be a general lack of willingness to really take up the pitchforks and charge the hill.

It doesn’t even have to be the Swallow/Shurtleff scandal. There have been plenty of others over the past few years. Remember HB477? The bill run by then Representative John Dougall (R) (who we have since elected to the position of State Auditor) that Republicans in the legislature passed in only 3 days, and would have completely stripped both the citizens and the media of our ability to access emails and other communications between legislators and lobbyists? The voters in Utah were so outraged that hundreds and hundreds of Tea Partiers, Liberals, Anti-Choice, Pro-Choice, and LGBTQ community members all stood shoulder to shoulder at the Capitol demanding it be repealed.

How about when Republican Representative Kevin Garn admitted to having a nude encounter with an underage girl in a hot tub, and when he finally dropped out, his colleagues in the legislature gave him a standing ovation when he announced his resignation?

Not your cup of tea? In 2007, Utah voters of all political stripes overwhelmingly voted to override the legislature and repeal school vouchers. Since then, legislators have changed the laws and made it almost impossible to get that kind of repeal initiative on the ballot ever again. And not only that, but Senator Howard Stephenson (R), who championed the voucher idea, has slowly but surely continued to pass privatization measures ever since. And Senator Aaron Osmond (R) just passed a law virtually eliminating all standards for homeschooled kids.

Still not your cup of tea? Remember how Governor Herbert stripped a $1 Billion UDOT contact from the winning bidder and awarded it to the corporation who had donated money to his campaign, and then gave the losing corporation $13 Million in hush money?

Or maybe you like all of them? The Utah legislature works just like Congress: few think it does a good job, but their own Rep and Senator are trying to fix it. Drive home the problems, help your constituents recognize how the incompetence of Utah Republicans is directly harming them and their family’s lives. And have a solution to fix the problem (more than just you’re a good person).

This year in Massachusetts, longtime popular governor Deval Patrick is retiring and the seat is opening up. The Republican on the ticket is Charlie Baker, while the Democrats will pick their candidate in a primary next month. While the Democrats fight it out amongst themselves, Baker is doing his damndest to take every little embarrassing scandal and attach it to each one of his opponents. He knows that if he can bang that drum loud enough, even in blue blue Massachusetts a Republican can win. Utah Democrats should be taking notes.