SB54 Causing a Schism Among Republicans While Democrats Support the Compromise

It took them a while, but leaders of the Utah State Democratic Party formally endorsed SB54 and said the political compromise, reached in the 2014 Legislature, that allows for party candidates to bypass delegates and go directly to a party’s primary ballot should be upheld.

The Democrats’ response comes as the Utah Republican Party Saturday night filed a lawsuit over SB54 in federal court, seeking to get the new law – which actually doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1 — struck down as unconstitutional.

After the Democrats’ press conference, GOP state chairman James Evans called the press together to discuss the lawsuit.

“I don’t know what the (Democratic) party’s stand was a year ago,” Democratic chairman Peter Corroon told UtahPolicy after Tuesday afternoon press conference.

“But I think” the endorsement of SB54 and its dual-path to a primary ballot “is where most Utah Democrats are. I guess you could say we’ve shifted (as a party) a bit more to the middle.”

At that press conference, which was attended by a handful of Democratic lawmakers, was Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake.

Dabakis was state party chairman during the 2014 Legislature and actually voted against SB54.

As chairman, Dabakis often said it had nothing to do with Democrats – even though it of course did, and does, apply to his party – adding, as he did Tuesday, that the law was really aimed at Republicans.

Asked by UtahPolicy why he voted against SB54, Dabakis said he did so because it didn’t go far enough in attempting to eliminate “the back-room, smoke-filled decisions” Utah GOP “insiders” make when picking their candidates in their party’s state and county conventions.

If one wants to look at the worst examples of insider, backroom party caucus politics, look no further than the Utah Republican Party, said Dabakis.

Actually, when Dabakis was party chairman in 2013, in the state Democratic convention delegates were asked to vote on the then-Count My Vote initiative petition idea of providing a direct primary route, via voter signatures, for candidates to get on their party’s primary ballots. The Democrats refused to endorse CMV.

So, officially the Utah Democratic Party did NOT favor the petition, a form of which was incorporated in the SB54 compromise.

But that changed Tuesday.

Corroon said the government of Utah and the United States is a democratic republic, and political parties should be about representing the people, not excluding them.

SB54 is really the best of both worlds, said Corroon.

For it still allows candidates who so wish to present themselves before party delegates in county or state conventions and be voted upon. And candidates can get on the party primary ballot via that route.

Or, SB54 allows candidates to collect voter signatures within their districts, or statewide for governor or U.S. senator, and go directly to the party primary ballot through that route.

Retiring House Minority Leader Jen Seelig, D-Salt Lake, said that both Republican and Democratic legislators voted for SB54, and so made a promise to Utah voters.

“We gave our word,” said Seelig, who is retiring end of this year to pursue her PhD degree.

“All sides worked together” for the SB54 compromise. “And all sides should stand behind that word.”

SB54 “opens up participation to a lot of people, not just a handful of insiders. It is true democracy; and we stand behind this compromise,” said Seelig.

But, as GOP state chairman Evans has said many times, and repeated in his own press conference, the state Republican Party did not endorse SB54.

In fact, Evans threatened a lawsuit as the CMV citizen petition drive was going forward in 2013 and 2014, well before SB54 passed in a deal that did not include Republican Party leaders.

Twice in 2013 GOP leaders called together the party’s Central Committee, a group of around 200 elected party leaders from across the state.

And twice the Central Committee voted not to make any compromises with CMV, but keep their current caucus/convention candidate nomination procedures.

At the 2013 state GOP convention, delegates also voted down any compromises with CMV; refusing to make any significant changes to the current GOP caucus/convention candidate selection process.

So, says Evans, the state GOP is breaking no promises in suing to strike down SB54.

But that is really beside the point, Evans stressed several times Tuesday.

The GOP lawsuit is about a private organization’s constitutional right to make its own decisions, to decide whom to associate with, and whom to pick as its candidates – to wear its brand, if you will.

SB54 interferes with those rights “at the most basic constitutional level,” said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-South Jordan, who voted against SB54 earlier this year. Several GOP House members who support the party lawsuit attended the Republican press conference.

Two issues have been confused by the public, said Evans: 1) a private organization’s internal decision-making and 2) the desire by some to have more people on a political party’s primary ballot.

The second issue really has nothing to do with the first, said Evans.

And he said he’s surprised that the Utah Democratic Party, and SB54 and Count My Vote supporters, don’t want a court clarification, just like state GOP leaders do.

While Evans and Ivory stressed the constitutional responsibility of GOP leaders to challenge SB54 in court, Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, touched a political nerve.

Greene said that if SB54 is allowed to stand, the Utah Republican Party will be “infiltrated by outsiders, those who are not Republicans,” but who can run within the party, get on the GOP primary ballot, and even be chosen by unknowing voters (which could include independents and even Democrats) to represent the party in the general election.

Since polls show voters know little about their state House or Senate member, having an “R” by your name on the Utah ballot in most general election contests means you win.

And so the GOP caucuses in the Utah House and Senate could end up including “non-Republicans.”

CMV advocates say the current caucus/convention system results in extreme candidates by both parties, and the middle-to-conservative average Utahn is left out in the political cold.

The CMV arguments – and now the GOP lawsuit — have resulted in some hard feelings among established Utah Republicans.

UtahPolicy publisher and Elephant Club member LaVarr Webb publicly released a letter Monday that said, among other things, that he wondered if there is a place for him and other “mainstream conservatives” in the Utah Republican Party today, adding it feels hard right-wingers have taken over party operations.

In his letter, Webb said he would not be giving any money to county or state Republican parties, for some of it could be used to pay for the SB54 lawsuit.

But Evans said for every former GOP party donor who has declined to give again, another Republican has stepped forward and donated just because they want to oppose SB54 and the Count My Vote citizen initiative.

Said Ivory: “Anyone can be on the ballot – file as an independent. But not anyone can be the Republican Party nominee. And we will not give up our constitutional rights of free association because of coercion by the state or some group.”

Evans said SB54 is now the law, and party leaders will not ask lawmakers in their 2015 general session, which starts in just over a month, to make any changes to it or even repeal it.

The Legislature passed SB54. GOP Gov. Gary Herbert signed it. So the legislative and executive branches of government have acted, and now it is up to the judicial branch to decide if SB54 is constitutional, said Evans.