A contested legislative seat in Iron County is sparking controversy within the Utah Republican Party.
Blake Cozzens is challenging Rep. John Westwood for the GOP nomination in House District 72.
Seems simple enough, but here’s where it gets sticky. Cozzens is the sitting chairman of the Iron County Republican Party, and he’s taking a ton of heat from those who say he’s violating the party bylaws which say “Neither the County Party nor its Executive Officers shall publically support, endorse, or assist one Republican candidate over another prior to a primary election in any national, state or local race.” Critics say Cozzens, by virtue of his position as party chair, is flouting that bylaw – and should either withdraw from the race or resign as chair.
Cozzens denies that he’s doing anything wrong, because he’s recused himself from any involvement in the county convention slated for next week.
“I was on the constitution and bylaws committee that wrote that rule,” says Cozzens. “We wrote it so the party does not endorse one candidate over another. I was planning to resign from my chairmanship before caucus night, but my vice-chair was not in a position to take over.”
State Party Chair James Evans sent a letter to Cozzens saying he’s violating the county party rules with his candidacy for the legislature.
The letter reads, in part, “Since the act of publically filing shows you are supporting, endorsing and assisting yourself over your other two opponents, your filing to run for House District 72 and refusing to step down as Iron County Republican Party Chair, even though you have deferred convention duties to others, puts you in direct conflict with this provision in your bylaws.”
James continues, “In your current leadership position, and others, you have always held yourself out as a champion for ensuring that the Republican Party follows the rules. At this time I am requesting you do the same – follow the rules.”
“James doesn’t have any integrity,” says Cozzens when asked about the letter. “He has no jurisdiction to get involved in this matter.”
Evans says he’s getting calls daily from Iron County delegates who are angry that Cozzens has not stepped down as chair. He says Cozzens’ decision to recuse himself is not enough.
“He’s either the chairman or he’s not,” says Evans. “There’s no qualifier in the bylaws about recusal.”
Evans also says he’s hoping the Iron County GOP Central Committee will step in and remedy the problem, because the controversy is hurting the Republican Party.
“We put them on notice that there is an issue. When you have Republicans who are raising issues of fundamental unfairness, we have to look into it. This does not help the Republican Party at all.”
One of Cozzens’ most vocal critics is former Davis County Party Chair and current Senator Todd Weiler.
“As a former party leader, I believe a party leader has a duty to put the party above themselves,” said Weiler. “When I see someone violating that, it offends me.”
“Blake is making up rules to suit his situation,” he continues. “To me, it’s black and white what he’s doing is wrong. He’s arrogantly violating his own bylaws and refusing to change.”
Cozzens defends himself saying his resignation would cause more problems than it would solve.
“It wouldn’t be right to leave the party chair vacant. My vice-chair would have to fill my role. If he didn’t want to, he would have to resign. Then, we’d have to hold a special election after the county convention. It would just be a bad thing for the party.”
Whoever wins the Republican nomination, Cozzens or Westwood, will most likely win the seat come November because there’s no Democratic challenger, and the only other candidate in the race is a member of the Libertarian Party.
Calls to Westwood seeking comment were not returned.
The Iron County GOP Convention is Saturday, April 12.