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Dan Liljenquist: Let's kick negative campaigners out of Utah politics

Published: Thursday, Jan. 9 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

In this file photo, people vote at the Bingham Creek Library in West Jordan, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. Let's kick negative campaigners out of Utah politics. If we do not do this now, the very foundation of our political system in Utah will remain at risk.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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Lost among the high drama of Judge Robert Shelby’s gay marriage ruling and its aftermath was much of the coverage of the second day of legislative hearings on the John Swallow investigation.

On Dec. 20, House investigators reported to legislators that an informant said certain payday lenders had allegedly funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to a secret network of entities designed to support Swallow and attack enemies of the payday lending industry. One of their alleged targets was Rep. Brad Daw, a Utah county legislator who had proposed a law to curb egregious payday lending practices

Jason Powers, a long-time political consultant who is known in Utah for negative campaigning, reportedly received the money from the payday lenders, laundered it through several of his shell “nonprofit” companies with names like the Proper Role of Government Education Association, before using it to savagely attack Daw.

The Guidant Strategies website, which lists Powers as its managing partner, proudly proclaims, “Representative Brad Daw was a popular incumbent. Polling at the beginning of the race showed him with more than a 4:1 favorable to unfavorable image, as well as more than a 25-point lead over his opponent. These mailers were instrumental in turning the tide in just over a month and defeating Brad Daw by nearly ten percentage points.” Underneath this statement, the site links to several mail pieces declaring that Daw is “pro-bullying”, loves “Obama, Reid and Pelosi”, and will send you to jail if you don’t buy health insurance. None of which, of course, is true. Guidant Strategies allegedly sent out thousands of these mailers to Daw’s constituents over a four-week period, carefully staying away from any mention of the payday lenders who allegedly funded the whole campaign.

As a citizen of this state, I am angry. Not only at the loss of an excellent legislator in Brad Daw, but also at the disease and disrepute that Jason Powers, John Swallow and the payday lenders allegedly have introduced into Utah’s political system. If proven true, these were schemes hatched in the dark, nurtured in secret, and unleashed on an unsuspecting electorate. There is no room for such things in Utah politics.

The public garroting of Rep. Daw demands two courses of action. First, the payday lending industry deserves the most severe scrutiny by the Legislature, the Department of Commerce and law enforcement personnel. If payday lenders are willing to treat the Legislature with such contempt, choosing to politically assassinate a single legislator rather than work through the regular legislative process, how are they treating Utah consumers who are distressed enough to use their “services”? How have payday lenders acted any differently than “loan sharks”, taking advantage of desperate people only to collect their “vig” at 400 percent-plus per year? The burden is now on the industry itself to demonstrate that they should not be regulated out of existence.

Second, consultants like Jason Powers, who are allegedly willing to lie, cheat and deceive to win elections must be rooted out of Utah politics. Character assassination can happen to anyone when those without morals, with contempt for the rule of law, who are motivated by money, are patronized by political campaigns. Any aspiring politician who fosters such an “ends justify the means” mentality is unfit for public office. I call upon our political leaders to fix this problem by refusing to hire those who are willing to engage in destructive campaigning, and by immediately, decisively, and publicly withdrawing support for any candidate who is willing to stoop to such tactics. If we do not do this now, the very foundation of our political system in Utah will remain at risk.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.

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