Buttars broke vow of silence, senator claims

By Ben Winslow and Clayton Norlen

Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Feb. 22 2009 1:19 a.m. MST

Sen. Chris Buttars

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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Controversial Sen. Chris Buttars was stripped of his Senate committee posts not because he went on an anti-gay tirade in an interview with a documentary filmmaker but because the West Jordan Republican broke a deal with Senate leaders not to talk about gay issues.

That's what a Senate colleague revealed on a conservative radio program Saturday.

"I have to tell you publicly that most of what Sen. Buttars said — I agree with," Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said on the weekly radio program "Inside Utah Politics" on KTKK-AM. "However, my concern is that we, as a Senate caucus, had an agreement that because Senator Buttars has become such a lightning rod on this issue, that he would not be the spokesperson on the issue."

Buttars violated that agreement, Stephenson said, adding that the comments undermined "everything we've done" in the last three weeks of the legislative session.

"It happened not because he said a lot of things wrong, although I don't agree with some of the things he said, but because he decided to be the spokesman again when we had decided, as a caucus, and he had agreed, that he was such a lightning rod, that it wasn't productive for him to be the spokesman on this issue," Stephenson said.

"I think the bulk of people in Utah agree with 90 percent of what he said," Sen. Dennis Stowell, R-Parowan, chimed in on the radio program. "He is a lightning rod, and I'm afraid the gay community's using him a little bit to get more publicity."

Stephenson disagreed with Buttars' claim that he alone killed any gay-rights bills, noting that much of the legislation was killed in the House.

"For him to claim the glory for that, truly he's delusional on this issue," Stephenson said.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, did not return a call seeking comment Saturday. Attempts to reach Buttars for comment were also unsuccessful. The voice mailbox on his cell phone was full.

Buttars was stripped of his leadership posts in the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Judicial Confirmation Committee on Friday, in response to a storm of controversy surrounding the outspoken senator. In an interview with documentary filmmaker Reed Cowan about California's Proposition 8 on gay marriage, Buttars compared gay-rights activists to Muslim terrorists and called them "the greatest threat to America going down."

Defiant, Buttars said his ouster wouldn't stop him from defending marriage from "an increasingly vocal and radical segment of the homosexual community." Asked about apologizing to the gay community for his comments, Buttars told reporters on the Senate floor on Friday: "Well, they ain't gonna get one."

Members of the gay rights group Equality Utah were ambivalent toward Buttars and word of any agreement he may have struck with his colleagues in the Senate.

"We support the First Amendment for everyone, but part of that is taking accountability for what is said. What Buttars said disrupted the civil process, but he has the right to say what he wants," said Will Carlson, Equality Utah's manager of public policy.

The group tried to channel outrage and reconciliation over California's Proposition 8 to push a series of bills through the Legislature called the "Common Ground Initiative." They sought to give some measure of rights and protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns. The legislation died quickly but before Buttars' comments became public.

Carlson said Buttars' comments may have emboldened people with extreme beliefs. He noted that since the November election where Proposition 8 passed, there have been two members of Utah's gay community who have reported being assaulted.

"An apology isn't going to fix or undo that, and him being removed from committees isn't going to fix the Common Ground bills or undo the votes," Carlson said.

On Saturday's radio program, Stephenson and Stowell spoke about how they should treat members of the gay community.

"I think we need to show respect for these people. We don't agree with them. We don't agree with their lifestyle, but we can still show great respect," Stowell said. "We want to be humble."

To hear Stephenson's full interview click here.

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com, cnorlen@desnews.com