When 2013 dawned bright and clear on the Beehive state, nobody could imagine the monumental political events that would unfold over the following year.
Needless to say the whole John Swallow fiasco, which resulted in his resignation after less than a year in office, is a news story unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Utah before. The political drama was delicious and horrifying at the same time. Naked greed. Questionable ethics. Denial. This had it all.
I’m not gonna run down the whole sordid affair because it would take too long and I’d only be walking over a path that was expertly blazed by the Salt Lake Tribune’s Robert Gehrke.
The flotsam left from Swallow’s political career is still floating on the water, but there were other news stories that will help shape the course of Utah politics in 2014.
The 2014 Congressional races got underway even before the 2013 elections were over.
Mia Love hired veteran campaign guru Dave Hansen and started raising an eye-popping (for Utah) amount of money ahead of a potential rematch with Jim Matheson.
Sen. Luz Robles announced her bid to challenge Rep. Chris Stewart in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.
Donna McAleer also jumped back into the fray as she will again challenge Rep. Rob Bishop in Utah’s 1st District.
The Love vs. Matheson rematch should be a good old-fashioned political donnybrook. The two candidates spent nearly $5 million between the two of them in 2012. That number seems like a starting point for one of the truly competitive races we will see in 2014.
Sen. Mike Lee helped lead a 16-day shutdown of the federal government in an effort to defund Obamacare. The shutdown closes Utah’s national parks and clobbers the tourist economy in a number of small towns. Gov. Gary Herbert “loans” the feds money to re-open five of the parks, a brilliant political move.
The shutdown may be the gift that keeps on giving to Sen. Lee, as his approval ratings in Utah plummeted in the aftermath giving rise to speculation he is ripe for a challenge for the GOP nomination in 2016.
The “Count My Vote” citizen’s initiative got underway following a refusal by the Utah Republican and Democratic parties to make changes to their nominating process. Numerous politicians and political operatives I’ve talked to say if CMV gets on the ballot, it will pass overwhelmingly doing away with Utah’s archaic caucus system for nominating candidates. That may do more to determine Mike Lee’s fate than his approval ratings.
Greg Bell steped down as Lt. Governor because he couldn’t afford it anymore. Public service was straining Bell’s financial health, and he took a job in the private sector to shore up his retirement.
Bell’s exit prompted tons of speculation about his replacement, with the smart money centering on Bell’s chief of staff Derek Miller. Herbert shocked everybody by selecting freshman Rep. Spencer Cox as his new #2, likely shoring up his support among rural Utahns if he decides to run for another term in 2016.
Herbert may need that support from rural Utahns because of his veto of the “Constitutional Carry” bill permitting Utahns to have a concealed weapon without a permit. It was quite a spectacle at the Capitol during the debate over the bill, with firearms enthusiasts bringing their guns to packed hearing rooms.
Then there’s the curious case of Carl Wimmer. Once a rising star in conservative circles, he fell by the wayside after losing his bid for the GOP nomination in Utah’s 4th Congressional District to Mia Love. Wimmer moved to Gunnison, which happens to be within the borders of the Utah House seat vacated by Spencer Cox when he rose to the Lt. Gov. position. As you can guess, tongues started wagging all over the state that Wimmer (and his mustache) might be headed back to Capitol Hill. But it was not to be as the former lawmaker announced he would not pursue a Legislative seat and, in fact, was leaving the LDS Church to become an evangelical minister.
Speaking of politicians leaving office, West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder led a slew of municipal leaders who chose not to run for another term during the 2013 elections. Winder decided he needed to find a full-time job. Murray Mayor Dan Snarr, Draper’s Darrell Smith and West Jordan’s Melissa Johnson also did not seek another term in office. You can probably put good money down that this won’t be the last we’ll hear from Winder, as rumors are churning he is mulling a bid for Salt Lake County Council next year.
GOP Party chair Thomas Wright also decided against another term at the head of that party. His exit made way for the election of former legislator James Evans, who became Utah’s first African-American state party chairman. Evans stepped into a potential hornets nest with the “Count My Vote” initiative and the 2014 midterms looming.
Utah’s media culture got a little poorer as the Salt Lake Tribune laid off nearly 20% of its staff and altered their joint operating agreement with the Deseret News. The Tribune has set the media agenda in Utah for as long as I can remember. It’s sad to see so many good journalists who were doing important and relevant work fall victim to a changing media environment.
And one national event that could have big repercussions in Utah – the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, prompting a lawsuit challenging Utah’s Amendment 3 which bans same-sex marriage. I think Amendment 3 will lose that challenge. If it does, Katie bar the door as the reaction from Utah’s Capitol Hill could be a big one.
2013 was a monumental and unique year in Utah politics. The threads from what happened over the past 365 days will stretch forward and form the framework for 2014 and beyond.