Okerlund Not Sure About Running for Senate Leadership

State Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund says he feels better today than he has in years, but will wait until closer to the November leadership elections to decide whether he wants to run again for the second most powerful leadership post in Utah’s 29-member Senate.


Okerlund, R-Monroe, suffered a heart attack just before the 2012 leadership elections, and while in the hospital learned that he had been successful in his majority leadership race.

Toward the end of the 2014 Legislature, Okerlund had another incident while in a leadership meeting. His heart did stop, and he was revived through the quick action of several senators who were also medically trained.

Okerlund missed the remaining several days of the session, hospitalized in Salt Lake City.

He tells UtahPolicy that it was not a heart attack per se, in that his heart muscle was not further damaged, but rather an imbalance in body chemicals caused in part by the medications he was taking.

“They’ve been able to do wonders,” with his heart treatments since, Okerlund said Monday. And he feels better medically than he has for years.

Still, being a legislative leader, especially in the final hectic hours of the annual 45-day, stress-filled sessions, can take its toll.

“There is no need for haste” in making a decision on whether he will run for his top leadership post or not, Okerlund said.

“We’ll see how things play out.”

Okerlund said he will not resign his seat. He is mid-way into his second, four-year term.

The office of majority leader does have certain responsibilities. The leader runs the floor while in formal session, he conducts most of the Senate GOP twice-weekly caucuses (which have been closed to the public and press for a number of years).

And along with the other members of majority leadership (Senate president, whip and assistant whip) keeps tabs on where the other Republicans are on critical issues.

GOP Senate leaders have said for several years that they don’t take votes in their closed caucuses (although it also appears that they may on certain topics), but during caucus debates they get a pretty good feel for where the caucus is on issues and budget items.

Technically, it is the majority leader who is responsible for counting heads, and all leadership members try to bring consensus on critical issues so budgets can be put together and such.

Leaders also sit on two major committees, the Executive Appropriations Committee, which is the main budget-setting body, and the Legislate Management Committee, which oversees the staff functions of the Legislature itself.

All told, there can be many long hours for Senate leaders, meetings with the governor and House GOP leaders, during the general session.

“I am thinking about what I want to do” in regards to running for majority leader again, said Okerlund.

“But my health would not prevent me” in seeking the leadership office again, he added.

As of now, it is anticipated that President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy; Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton; and Assistant Majority Whip Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City; would all run again for their leadership posts later this year.

If recent history repeats itself, there would be challengers to those elections.

Leadership races for both houses, both political parties, are traditionally held right after the November general election – when newly-elected members can participate in the votes.

Leadership elections are secret ballots. In the Senate, the candidate closing date is just 24 hours before the actual votes, although candidates generally announce their intentions a month or two before the November elections.

There definitely will be new leaders in the Utah House next year.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, is retiring. Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, says he wants to be speaker. And it is likely some other Republicans will seek that post as well.

House Minority Leader Jen Seelig, D-Salt Lake; and Minority Whip Tim Cosgrove, D-Midvale; are both retiring.

So the top two Democratic House leadership posts will be open, as well.

There are only five Democratic senators, and four of them are in elected minority leadership. Minority Assistant Whip Pat Jones, D-Holladay, is retiring, so there will be at least one new member of Senate minority leadership next year.