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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Is Utah's junior senator facing a revolt in his home state?

Published: Sunday, Oct. 27 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

A legislative audit revealed that Utah's highly touted Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative has overstated results and needs management improvements. What are the political ramifications?

Pignanelli: For state officials, this scandal was akin to learning that your wonderful son was not awarded an Eagle Scout, valedictorian and student president election as he claimed. While no funds were absconded, the conduct will compel legislative and executive responses. For years, insiders have been whispering suspicions of USTAR achievements while emphasizing the real spadework for job creation is happening through the Governor's Office of Economic Development under Director Spencer Eccles and his deputy, Chris Conabee.

Webb: A response to the audit by USTAR Chairman Dinesh Patel and Vice-Chairman Spencer P. Eccles acknowledges the problems reported in the audit, particularly in reporting and management processes. They have pledged to implement the audit's recommendations. I supported the creation of USTAR and have been involved off and on over the years. I believe the bottom line is whether USTAR is bolstering Utah's economy long term, and returning the investment the state has made in it. While improvements suggested by the audit can and must be made, I believe USTAR will remain a good investment for Utah taxpayers.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a 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. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

Most Utahns are more interested in football and enjoying beautiful fall weather than they are about politics — but the political game also has intrigue as a spectator sport.

Last week, two of the nation's largest newspapers carried front-page stories about the political woes facing Sen. Mike Lee in Utah. Is this just East Coast jabber or is Utah's junior senator facing a revolt in his home state?

Pignanelli: "If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins." — Benjamin Franklin

These articles were a shocker because several state leaders were quoted — openly — in their criticism of Sen. Lee. For a culture well-known for restraint and passive aggressive behavior, this is a big deal. Politicos contrast this with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who returned to rallies of fawning Texans. Along with dropping approval ratings, these comments suggest Sen. Lee could be in jeopardy.

Although my moderate Republican and Democratic friends disagree, Sen. Lee's current dilemma is not a significant obstacle to garner the GOP nomination in 2016. The many objections to Sen. Lee are based upon tactics — but not his philosophy — and are easily forgiven. Sen. Lee is popular with right-wing base, and eventually grumpy mainstream Republicans will begin to appreciate his fight for the beliefs they share with him. Also, Sen. Lee possesses that concoction of personality traits that rarely co-exist together in the same person: ultraconservative principles, high intelligence and the ability to articulate positions. His smart move is to utilize assets in an "explanation campaign" and Cruz-like celebrations. But if Sen. Lee ignores the warning signs and does nothing, the real threat will not be a Republican, but from a moderate Democrat.

Webb: I believe most Utahns, myself included, support Sen. Mike Lee's goals and appreciate his commitment and sincerity. But as a political tactician he has failed badly, making it harder to end Obamacare and get the size and cost of the federal government under control. When your side controls only one-half of one-third of the government, you can't win by brute force, but you can play smart defense and attempt to position your party to take control of the U.S. Senate and the presidency in future elections.

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