Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: How will some politicos' retirement impact Utah politics, policy?

Published: Sunday, March 23 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

People gather outside the House of Representatives at the Utah State Capitol on Monday, February 10, 2014.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

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Politics is interesting because the issues and the people involved are always changing — although your columnists are often accused of being stuck in a rut. Much focus is centered on what to expect from new candidates and new elected officials. However, government is equally impacted by voluntary and involuntary retirements. In recent weeks, many Utah decision-makers announced they are leaving public service, impacting politics and policy in the state.

A number of legislators announced they will not seek re-election in 2014. Does this change election dynamics this year?

Pignanelli: "Every day I become more of a grumpy old man, and now that I am leaving politics, I am freer to speak my mind." — Michael Portillo, British politician

Slightly demented people are obsessing over NCAA tournament brackets. The truly twisted (which definitely includes us) are preoccupied with overanalyzing the candidate filings.

An indication of great leadership is the training and grooming of your replacement, and House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart has excelled in this fundamental. At least seven competent lawmakers are in line to assume various positions within legislative leadership that will be open because of her retirement. These individuals will be expending their financial and physical resources to assist candidates who can vote for them in the November organization caucus. In this strange way, Lockhart's departure is a potential benefit to GOP legislative candidates.

Incumbency is the greatest weapon in a campaign. Over 25 percent of Democrats serving in the Legislature are leaving elected politics, which is a tragedy for the minority party. Several of these open districts are considered "swing" and new opportunities now exist for the GOP. Conversely, Democrats may have a shot at two seats — with similar dynamics — vacated by a Republican.

Webb: Good government is crucial to a well-functioning society, and good government depends on good people seeking office. So congratulations to those who have filed for the many offices up for grabs this year. And a hearty thanks to those who have served well and are retiring.

Democratic legislators, already an endangered species, could see their numbers decline further as five members will not seek re-election. Some of those seats are safely Democratic, but open seats give opportunities to Republicans, especially in a low-turnout year when Democrats are dispirited. Local races aren’t usually impacted much by national politics, but an unpopular president and party troubles at the national level mean Democrats can’t take anything for granted. All the retirements don’t help. The moderate, reasonable Sen. Pat Jones will be especially missed in the Senate.

On the Republican side, the big impact will be Lockhart leaving the Legislature. Long a major force in legislative politics, her retirement plans have already launched a game of musical chairs, with veteran Republicans scrambling for key leadership slots.

Most Democrats and some Republicans are disappointed that Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson is retiring. How does this impact the November elections?

Pignanelli: Clueless Democrats have complained about Matheson over the years, claiming they would be better off without him. Well, big brother is leaving home and the whining little sisters and brothers are soon to discover how foolish they were. Every election cycle, Matheson infused tremendous resources into coordinated campaigns that assisted Democrats. Further, Republicans were willing to cross the ballot to vote for Matheson, which helped other Democrats. Independents enjoyed the Matheson style and often gave other Democrats a similar nod. All the Matheson advantages are gone in 2014. Democrats will need tremendous creativity and strategy to replicate the Matheson dynamic.

Webb: It’s an enormous loss for Democrats, both in Utah and nationally. Democrat Doug Owens, son of the popular former Congressman Wayne Owens, could emerge as a solid candidate in the moderate Matheson mold — a better candidate than most people realize. But the Republican nominee, almost certainly Mia Love, will be the strong favorite in the race. Some Republicans still question her substance and worry about her inexperience, but Utah may well end up with an all-Republican delegation for the first time in many years.

Do these retirements have any influence beyond Election Day?

Pignanelli: With Lockhart leaving, some form of Medicaid expansion will be enacted. If election results mirror current polling, 2015 and 2016 will be the second time in a century that a Utah Democrat did not hold federal or statewide office. The last occasion (1985-86) drove a reassessment of strategy that succeeded. If a similar re-evaluation occurs, departed Democrats would impact issues.

Webb: The popular Matheson will be out of Congress, but he will be monitoring future opportunities and will be a major force should he decide to run for governor or the U.S. Senate. He will keep top Republicans glancing over their shoulders.

An even more-Republican Utah means the real political battles will be fought between mainstream Republicans and the far right. However, the success of the broad Count My Vote coalition shows that mainstream leaders are simply not going to allow the right wing to control Utah politics.

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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