Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Eight Votes

bernick mugNever try to tell Mel Brown that your vote doesn’t count.

The long-time GOP Utah House member, a former House speaker, lost his re-election this year in a party primary by eight votes, the final canvas shows.

Eight votes!

Here is the official canvas in the GOP primary in House District 53.

As you can see, Morgan County Council member Logan Wilde lost to Brown in every county except Morgan – where Wilde beat Brown 3-1.

And it was just enough.

If just a few more Brown supporters – and he has many in his multi-county district – had bothered to vote, Brown would have won the GOP primary and most likely the final election.

He has carried his district handily in recent elections.

For now, the stunning Wilde victory (Brown may well ask for a recount) ends a long legislative career – one filled with personal accomplishments and a steep downfall and recovery.

Brown was first elected to the House from a Midvale district back in 1986. A LDS Stake President, Brown had a built-in constituency in what had been (and continues to this day) a swing district.

Brown’s brother, Glen, was the speaker of the House in the late 1980s. And Mel Brown worked his way through House leadership, hoping to make the Brown brothers the first clan to be speakers of the 75-member House.

Brown ran an insurgency speakership race and came from well down in the field to beat Marty Stephens in the mid-1990s.

The Brown victory was so unexpected that then-GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt (who had called a meeting of the newly-elected Republican House and Senate leaders in his office that day), asked where Marty was when the group showed up and was told that Stephens had lost.

Brown hadn’t been informed about or invited to the meeting – that was how sure everyone one was that Stephens would win.

Brown was running for a third term as speaker in 1998 – Stephens was challenging him – when his personal and political career blew up.

He was linked romantically with a younger woman whom he had known as a family friend for years.

Married, Brown denied there was a romantic relationship. But his wife sued for divorce.

Meanwhile, a former intern who happened to be sitting in a local restaurant near Brown and a well-known lobbyist publicly reported the conversation – which centered around Brown’s personal life and whether Brown could get a job as a lobbyist/government specialist with a large firm when he left office.

Accused of misconduct in the press over the lobbyist luncheon, Brown himself asked for a formal ethics investigation by the House Ethics Committee – which found Brown violated no ethical rules in the lobbyist relationship.

All the controversy, however, led Brown to step out of the speaker’s race the day of the newly-elected GOP House caucus vote. Brown won his election that year but chose not to run for re-election to his Midvale seat.

Later he moved to Coalville, where his family had long run a dairy operation. Now single, Brown married the young woman in question.

Rebuilding his reputation, Brown ran for the House again in 2006 and won the House District 53 seat.

But the seat contained parts of Park City, a liberal bastion. In 2011 legislative redistricting, fellow GOP lawmakers pushed District 53 out of Park City and into more rural Utah.

Brown was considered safe from a Democratic challenger – thus the irony of being beaten by a Morgan County fellow Republican.

Always a smart politician, Brown allied himself with the late-Speaker Becky Lockhart, and when Lockhart (the first female House speaker in Utah history) won the top slot several years ago, she named Brown as House budget chairman – an influential position.

Mel Brown was back in power in the House – a political recovery likely not seen in Utah legislative history.

Brown ran for speaker two years ago, after Lockhart retired and then tragically died of a rare brain disease.

But he got only a handful of votes – times had changed, as had Brown’s House GOP caucus base.

Newly-elected Speaker Greg Hughes offered Brown the chairmanship of a powerful budget committee, but Brown turned it down saying he had never served on that committee before and preferred another post.

But Hughes didn’t offer an alternative, and Brown – the most senior House majority party member – decided to sit on the back row (where senior members sit) and not take any formal leadership position the last two general sessions.

Still, Brown accomplished much in his legislative career – perhaps his greatest legacy reforming the State School Trust Lands Agency, which oversees a more than $1 billion fund, investing proceeds of state land sales/leases for the benefit of Utah school children.

Brown legislative protégé, David Ure, now heads SITLA, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Brown after his legislative retirement finds a place on the SITLA Board of Trustees, or working for the agency in some capacity.

Should Utah ultimately regain control of millions of acres of federal land in the state, SITLA will become an even more critical land policy agency.

In short, the public service legacy of Mel Brown, now 78, could well be far from over – his influence felt for years to come.