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.
In short time, politicos are respecting the Stokes decision. With his knowledge of delegates and Utah's political VIP, he can protect his boss. Moreover, Lee and his campaign operatives are Utah County-based, and Stokes is a Northern Utah boy with strong ties to the area. The well-adjusted state lobbyists want Stokes to succeed — another benefit to Lee.
Webb: The appointment certainly makes sense, but is not without its ironies. Lee ran against earmarks. Stokes has spent a career seeking earmarks. Lee ran as an angry outsider. Stokes is the consummate insider — a lobbyist's lobbyist, as much a part of the establishment as is possible. Lee ran against business as usual. Stokes works the system as a practitioner of the dark arts of political influence, seeking political and legislative advantage for his clients. Lee is a conservative ideologue, a true believer standing on principle. Stokes is a practical, get-the-job-done kind of guy willing to trade favors and compromise.
On the other hand, the appointment is a good sign for lots of Utah leaders who are hoping Lee will emerge as a pragmatic senator focused on solving problems, rather than an ideological firebrand paying little attention to serving the practical and varied interests of the state. It's an interesting choice, and we'll see how it turns out.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. E-mail: email@example.com.