State and county Republican grassroot activists have struggled for years over the question of “automatic” delegates.
Last summer, state delegates elected two “dissidents” to top party posts, which has lead to some internal party leadership hassles.
Now the fate of both those intra-party issues will be addressed this year as long-time Cache County party leader Clair Ellis has introduced a party rule change that would re-introduce “automatic” delegates for the state organizing convention only. You can read the rule change here.
In effect, Ellis told UtahPolicy, the election-year nominating delegates would be picked as they are now – in the hundreds of mass meetings held in March of even numbered years.
Those delegates would attend the election-year candidate state nominating convention and vote on those candidates, like for Congress and governor. That convention this year is April 21.
But off-year delegates who attend the organizing convention – where party leaders are picked -- would be a whole different group made up of county party leaders, precinct chairs, and the chairs of individual state House and Senate districts, and sitting GOP officeholders.
In the past, those GOP post-holders have been called “automatic” delegates.
Some county GOP organizations still have them included in the nominating delegates. Other county parties have done away with them, saying if local GOP luminaries want to be a state delegate they have to attend their March caucuses and be elected like any other delegate.
“This is a whole new idea. A really big change. And we want it to go to the state Central Committee and have a lot of discussion” throughout 2012, said Ellis.
His proposal will not be voted on in the April 21 state nominating convention, and will only come to a future convention for debate and approval/rejection by delegates if the Central Committee – a group of 200-odd individuals who hold party offices at one level or another -- decides in favor of the change.
Ellis said his change is not intended to influence the outcome of any future elections for state chairman and other top party offices – vice chair, secretary and treasurer.
But if so-called party insiders are the ones who elect state party officers it could well prevent party critics like current party vice chair Lowell Nelson and secretary Drew Chamberlain from being elected to state party posts.
At the 2011 state organizing convention, after Thomas Wright was elected chairman, he made a short emotional address to the delegates telling them that they had just elected men (Chamberlain and Nelson) who had sued the state party over its internal rules.
Wright and other party insiders have had a rocky relationship with Nelson and Chamberlain since, although the working partnership seems to have gotten better lately.
At one point a resolution – sponsored by now-state-Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Bountiful, a former state party vice chair -- was to be introduced at a state Central Committee telling the pair not to speak for the party on any subject. (That resolution was withdrawn, after Nelson and Chamberlain agreed not to represent the party in the media or elsewhere.)
A Salt Lake Tribune story on the conflict is here.
The pair has often criticized the use of “automatic” delegates, and has been listed on court documents suing the state party over the issue.
Historically, fewer party delegates show up at the off-year organizing convention where party leaders are elected. And there in lies the problem, says Ellis.
“Maybe half of the delegates come to the organizing convention. Basically, when we’ve elected our delegates we ask them to do a job (attend the off-year organizing convention where party leaders are picked) that they aren’t interested in. They stand to be delegates to vote on candidates” in the election-year nominating convention.
If only a third or a half of grassroot delegates are making important party decisions in the off-year organizing convention, well, says Ellis, that throws into question whether rank-and-file GOP voters’ feelings are being well represented.
Even at the great GOP turnout last month, most of the people attending – and the delegates chosen – talked about the U.S. Senate and governor races, said Ellis, who has been a part leader in one position or another for decades.
“No one came to the caucuses to talk about party organization, our documents (rules) or platform,” he added. “But that is what they are expected (to vote on) at the organizing convention.”
“We’ve been trying to force that round peg into the square hole for years. And for years it hasn’t worked,” said Ellis.
Ellis’s rule change would not reduce the number of state nominating delegates, this year set at 4,000.
Rather, it would replace that number for the off-year organizing convention with state and county party officers, precinct chairs, state House and Senate chairs and all partisan GOP officeholders in the state.
Under his plan, those people would “automatically” be delegates to the organizing convention and not be specifically voted on in the March caucus meetings
While he hasn’t counted that number, he’s guessing it would be around 3,000 new delegates in the odd-numbered-year organizing conventions.
And such party insiders could well stop in the future the election of such “dissidents” like Nelson and Chamberlain.
While “dissidents” have sought top party posts before, it took the unhappy 2010 crop of state delegates – the same group that voted former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett out of office – a year later to pick two men who said they wanted to shake up party leadership and bring change to the Utah Republican Party.
Weiler told UtahPolicy he sees good and bad outcomes from Ellis’s rule change, although overall he supports it.
A long-time observer of Utah politics, Weiler said historically around 97-98 percent of the newly-elected state delegates attend their candidate nominating convention.
“In recent years we’ve worked hard to get maybe 50 percent to our organizing convention a year later. But we’ve been as low as 30 percent in the past,” Weiler told UtahPolicy.
Weiler says it is premature to say that an organizing convention of so-called party insiders would vote differently for state GOP leaders than the current crop of caucus-elected delegates.
“I’ve attended a lot of party (March) caucuses. And the guy who is picked as precinct chair – well, that is kind of a booby prize. He’s the nice guy who just wants to get involved in the party, at its lowest grassroots level. But I don’t know if there is any difference, really, between the guy who walks out of the meeting as the precinct chair and the guy who walks out a state delegate.”
In short, so-called dissidents could still be elected to top party posts under the Ellis plan, believes Weiler.
UtahPolicy sought comment from Nelson and Chamberlain on the Ellis plan. Nelson said he couldn’t comment on the bylaw change because internal party rules prohibit a sitting officer from supporting or opposing any proposed resolution or bylaw change.
He added, however, that he is on record against “automatic” delegates, and agreed that the Ellis plan would have a whole convention of automatic delegates. “You can infer from that what you will, but I can’t comment on it.”
Arnold Gaunt, a GOP activist who has worked against “automatic” delegates for years, said he recognizes that the nominating delegates often have little interest “in the workings of the party” – and that that problem needs a solution.
But “it is a step in the wrong direction to have any automatic delegates” in any convention – especially a whole convention of them.
Instead, said Gaunt, perhaps in the March caucus meetings a nominating delegate and an organizing delegate could be picked, with the organizing convention delegate understanding that he will attend a convention a year away and work on party internal matters.
Or, said Gaunt, the March caucus meetings could be held every year, with election-year caucuses picking nominating delegates and off-year caucuses electing an organizing convention delegate.
Ellis told UtahPolicy he’s open to other ways to pick organizing convention delegates, as long as those delegates are committed to attending the off-year conventions and responsibly doing the work of party building and electing party officers.