Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Now We’ve Got Bad Blood

Bob BernickThere are always some hard feelings after a tough-fought election.

But are the battles of 2016 on the legislative front more harsh, more enduring, than usual?

It depends on whom you talk to, but several GOP House members who were “targeted” by the Democratic Party tell UtahPolicy that things have changed in the 104-member, part-time Legislature.

Democrats saw three close races “flip” in 2014 – the Democratic candidates were ahead on election night that year, only to lose their races when all votes were counted in canvass two weeks later.

So, it made sense, that House Democrats believed they could take back those seats in 2016.

And then there were several other seats – all in West Valley/Magna/Kearns area – that Democrats hoped to pick up by unseating longtime incumbents, like Reps. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville; and Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns.

With final counts still coming in, it appears the Democrats have gained just one House seat – that of retiring Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville.

Two other races are close, with Democrats barely ahead of two Republicans. The final canvass is next Tuesday.

House Democrats – along with their PAC and the county and state Democratic Party organizations – originally thought they could take 12 seats away from Republicans this year, and were especially hopeful after Donald Trump won the GOP presidential nomination.

Utahns did not like Trump at all.

And House Democrats hoped that would filter down to Salt Lake County legislative races.

But what filtered down, several House Republicans tell UtahPolicy, is bad feelings.

And maybe those feelings will slide into the 2017, GOP-dominated general legislative session.

One Republican taken aback by what he sees as the new partisanship in the Utah House is Hutchings – who started out as a Democratic Party appointee from his Kearns-based House District 38, switching to the Republican Party way back in the early 2000s.

Hutchings has always had close re-elections, winning by 6 to 8 percentage points.

This year he defeated Democrat Charles Henderson by about 10 points, 55.43 percent to 44.57 percent with some final votes still to be tallied by next Tuesday’s canvass. But Hutchings is ahead by 796 votes and his seat won’t flip at canvass.

“My race against Charles was pretty boring. We both stuck to the issues,” said Hutchings.

But it was the tone of the presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Trump – and the House Democrats’ targeting of incumbent Republicans – that depresses Hutchings, one of the longest serving members of the Utah House.

“You know, it is almost like we can’t be in the same room anymore – Democrats and Republicans,” said Hutchings.

“I don’t know how we get past that; but it really has gotten worse” in the House over the years, he says.

Hutchings says he learned from the late-Eddie Mayne, a union leader and former state Democratic senator, “that if someone has a good idea, you take it, you work with them – it is not always about political party and partisanship,” says Hutchings, who may be looking at that Senate seat now held by Mayne’s widow, Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, should she ever decide to step down.

Hutchings was targeted by House Democrats this year, as were several others in his general area of the county.

Henderson was given $4,500 from the House Democratic PAC, out of the $19,000 he raised, and given several thousand more from sitting House Democrats.

That’s OK, says Hutchings. But it is the idea that good Democrats and good Republicans can’t sit down and work out compromises that bothers him the most.

“I think this bad feeling will” slip over into the 2017 session.

As Hutchings candidly put it: “How often do you let someone slap you in your face, and you don’t do anything back; just take it?”

Hutchings, in part, no doubt, because of the diverse area of his district, says he has worked across the aisle more than many GOP legislators.

“I’ve asked (Democrats), “What do you need in our budget? What issues are important to you?”” that he can help within his areas of expertise, like corrections and prison reform.

“But now we’ve become so separated. For (Democrats) so say: “It is not about people, we like you. It is about party, and we believe we can take you out” at re-election.

“Will (Democrats) be surprised (in the general session) when we shut you down” and they don’t get their bills passed or budget priorities addressed?

“It is all very depressing to me,” says Hutchings.

“We are self-segregating. It used to be blacks and whites. Now it is Republicans and Democrats.”

“We need to change the dialogue. But I don’t know how we do it.”