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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Should Utah dump conventions for primaries?

Published: Sunday, Dec. 12 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Two recent events received scant attention from average Utahns who have much better things to do this holiday season than clutter their minds with political gossip. On the other hand, our warped political-junkie psyches must scrutinize and dissect every incident in Utah politics, no matter how trivial.

Utah House Minority Leader David Litvack has proposed eliminating the caucus/convention nominating process and replacing it with direct primary elections. Does his bill have any chance of success?

Webb: No. Nor should it. If we eliminate the caucus/convention system people will immediately start complaining that only incumbents or famous or wealthy people can successfully run for office. The average guy, who now has a chance to compete, won't have the big money to execute a paid media primary campaign with TV and radio ads. Campaigns will be more about fluff, with a lot less substance.

Our current system forces candidates in contested races to run four separate campaigns, each of them very challenging, requiring high levels of leadership, organizational, and communications skills. They first must run a caucus campaign, winning support at the grassroots level in every voting precinct in their district. Then, once delegates are selected, they must compete for their support, one-by-one and in small groups. These delegates take their jobs seriously and candidates must know the issues and have substantive answers to questions. If a candidate survives the convention, a primary campaign is next, and finally the general election against the opposing party. It's a gauntlet that weeds out frivolous candidates and prepares winners to govern. It produces better leaders than a 30-second sound bite TV campaign run by an advertising agency selling their candidate like soap.

Pignanelli: The delegate/convention system is antiquated and empowers the extreme of both parties. But no incumbent wants to anger the delegates who control his/her destiny. All the voices seeking reform are former public servants, or people who do not want to seek office in the near future.

Litvack's move is important for several reasons. He is indeed courageous (I did not touch this hot potato until long after I left office) and the first Utah official of prominence to seek change through legislation. A respected liberal, this is swipe at his base, and sends a message. Republicans who agree with his efforts have long stated that the Democrats will need to move first in order to push the GOP. Litvack has started the process. Savvy Utahns are applauding his efforts.

Sen.-Elect Mike Lee has selected lobbyist Spencer Stokes for the prestigious and powerful position of chief of staff. What's the buzz about this interesting choice?

Pignanelli: "Being elected to Congress is regarded as being sent on a looting raid for one's friends." — George F. Will. Freshly minted senators and congressmen/women almost always choose a veteran D.C. staffer or policy wonk for their chief. The rare lobbyist chosen is steeped in national experience. Thus, Lee's announcement that state contract lobbyist Stokes was tapped caused tongues to wag.

As a lobbyist for major entities (i.e. Credit Union League, Envirocare/Energy Solutions, HCA/MountainStar hospitals, etc.), Stokes was engaged in many of the controversial political fights during the last decade. Possessing a sometimes prickly — but always humorous-personality, Stokes is well liked on both sides of the aisle. He was able to utilize enough goodwill to establish the Lobbyist Office at the State Capitol.

But Stokes is more than just a lobbyist. A former Weber County Commissioner and Republican Party Executive Director, he understands the Utah political landscape. This is an asset that cannot be underestimated.

The Chief of Staff is the heart and soul of the politicians' life. He or she can make all the difference with constituents, lobbyists and special interest groups. Technical skills are secondary to political understanding. Indeed, Sen. Orrin Hatch's revitalization amongst Utah Republicans is partially credited to his outgoing Chief of Staff Jace Johnson.

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