Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Questions we've been asked over a decade of writing

Published: Sunday, Dec. 15 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Columnists Pignanelli and Webb examine how events, people and trends have influenced Utah politics.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

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Although the Deseret News may be loathe to admit it, the Pignanelli/Webb column is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month. Of course, Frank and LaVarr have different methods of celebrating ...

Offering (OK, subjecting) readers to our opinions every week elicits interesting questions about the mechanics of the column. In recognition of a decade of immense patience by our wonderful editors (never hurts to butter-up the boss), we are peeling back the mysteries behind the thought process (a generous description) and giving you a peek. These are the most common inquiries we field, and our sometimes-honest answers:

How do you decide on your topics every week? Have you ever struggled to find subject matter?

Pignanelli and Webb: "Political columnists and sports pundits are rewarded for being overconfident." — Daniel Kahneman Usually, one of us calls the other and says, "Holy cow (or something close to that), it's already time to write a column! Didn't we just finish the last one? Any bright ideas?”

Actually, political and personal advice columnists share one advantage — humans consistently generate enough controversy that we are never at a loss. Utah politicians do not disappoint in producing great grist for the rumor mill.

Do you receive hate mail? Have you ever been attacked or chastised in public for your comments?

Pignanelli: I am a sick demented person who relishes in the nasty email responses my opinions often generate, usually questioning my intelligence, character and ultimate destination after death. Because most Utahns are polite, I usually receive nice compliments in person. However, unimpressed readers have delivered their responses (usually obscene) to me in grocery stores, while jogging, in theaters and when visiting a friend in the hospital.

(Webb) When I get angry responses, I usually blame it on Frank. (“Yeah, that was a really stupid thing for Frank to write. Somehow the editors goofed up and put it under my name.”) Actually, most of the really mean stuff is posted online in the comments after the column. I never read the comments from weird people who don’t have a life, so I go blithely along with my existence assuming everyone loves me.

Where does Frank get all his quotes?

Pignanelli: There are some secrets in politics (i.e., How does Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, keep his great skin. How does Rob Bishop, R-Utah, keep all that hair?) that are best left in the dark.

Webb: Here’s the secret: He makes them up.

Do readers offer ideas for column topics? What's the weirdest suggestion you've ever encountered?

P/W: We often receive suggestions, and we encourage them. One reader asked that we explore the impact of a full moon on elections.

Has the newspaper ever declined to publish what you write?

P/W: There was that time when the editors _________________________ (oops, they took that out). Actually the newspaper has been very good, sometimes gently admonishing us with counsel like, “Guys, your column is funny, but it’s not DESERET NEWS funny." No doubt, we strain their patience and good will, but they rarely push back.

P/W: We notice that both of you have strong opinions, but rarely attack a politician in a negative way.

P/W: Plenty of negativity exists in politics. We prefer to avoid making politics personal and we respect the opinions of each other and those of well-intentioned politicos. We often criticize the policy, but not the character of the policymaker. Further, we try to follow the guiding principles of this newspaper in maintaining dialogue that is substantial and robust, but civil.

Each of you has a different approach to politics. Are you very different personally as well politically?

P/W: In many ways we are very different. Frank is a third-generation Italian-Irish-Catholic-Democrat who waves his arms in an animated fashion whenever he talks or even breathes. LaVarr is a typical Utah Mormon with Republican roots who is much more shy and reserved. (Frank entertains, LaVarr informs.) Both are devoted to their families, take a mainstream approach to politics and share a great love for Utah.

Do you like each other?

Pignanelli: As a twisted demon, I enjoy fabricating creative insults to hurl at LaVarr. Yet, I respect his talents, political acumen and humanity. LaVarr is fulfilling an ecclesiastical calling for the LDS Church in the heart of Salt Lake City. Every day he encounters poverty, mental illness, homelessness, addiction and other great tragedies of society, and offers victims hope. He performs more works of charity in one day than most of us do in a year.

Webb: Frank exaggerates a lot. But other than that, poking fun at Frank is like being the proverbial mosquito in a nudist colony — so much to choose from. In reality, Frank is a consummate political professional who, even as a lobbyist, cares deeply about good public policy, tells his clients and policymakers the truth, and seeks to make Utah a better place to live.

What's the biggest payback you have for writing the column?

P/W: For Frank, a comment to the effect of "you make me laugh" means everything, because he does not expect to persuade anyone to his opinion. For LaVarr, it is simply helping people understand politics a bit better from the perspective of 40 years of political observation.

Will you be writing for another 10 years?

P/W: This will be a true test of the charity and forbearance of Deseret News management. If there's hope for wayward children, we may be around for a while.

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.

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