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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Utah political parties struggle over ideology, leadership

Published: Wednesday, July 29 2015 10:35 p.m. MDT

In off-election year conventions, political parties choose their officers and take care of party business. Results from the recent Republican convention and the anticipated outcome of the upcoming Democratic convention are raising eyebrows. Whenever we see raised eyebrows, we are obliged to comment.

Utah Republicans chose as their vice chairman and secretary two arch-conservatives who were viewed by many mainstream Republicans as party dissidents, often at odds with party leadership and even filing litigation against party leaders. Now they are the party leaders. Convention delegates also rebelled against top GOP legislators and the clear wishes of the LDS Church by passing a resolution to repeal HB116, the immigration reform legislation. Is the Utah Republican Party falling apart?

Pignanelli: "Damn your principles! Stick to your party." — Benjamin Disraeli

The Utah Republican Party is analogous to Microsoft: a dominant operating system customers inherit or select because of a comfort level — everyone else is also using it. Both entities consistently attempt innovation in order to break into new markets. Their success is undeniable, but open-sourcing is now bringing external and internal problems. The software giant and the GOP are plagued with well-disguised bugs, viruses and trojans from within intent on reformatting or destroying the entire operation.

Utah Republican Chairman Thomas Wright deserves the respect he is receiving from most corners of Utah politics, especially for his use of technology to promote party development. Yet he now has the unique challenge of dealing with two officers that are more focused on structural and ideological purity than the primary goal of a political party: electing candidates. (Tom: welcome to the long-term problem of Utah Democrats.)

Add this dynamic to the current struggle over immigration, and it is easy to predict that local Republicans are in for a long internal wrestling match.

Webb: I'm a Republican state delegate, and I lost on most of my convention votes. However, had more delegates stuck around for the HB116 vote (almost 600 had gone home five hours into the convention), the resolution would have been defeated. Of all 3,500 delegates (not all attended the convention), fewer than 25 percent voted to repeal HB116. Thus, no politician need feel a mandate exists to repeal the immigration law. I believe the LDS Church's position on immigration clearly influenced the HB116 vote. Otherwise, the resolution would have passed by an even greater margin.

More troubling to me were the leadership elections, which showed the true nature of current delegates. Wright, a strong conservative leader who has done a remarkable job for the party, barely won re-election, even against some very weak opponents. Wright's mainstream running mates lost to dissidents whose passion and energy are directed at fighting over arcane intra-party rules and procedures rather than defeating Democrats. What were my fellow delegates thinking?

Nevertheless, the Utah GOP is far from falling apart. Despite some weird machinations at the state party level, one thing unites the party: Barack Obama and national Democrats. There is nothing like a good political opponent to help maintain focus and rise above party in-fighting.

Longtime Democratic State Chairman Wayne Holland is retiring. Several candidates are vying to replace him, but the strongest contender is local businessman and former radio personality Jim Dabakis — who is also a prominent gay activist. What does this mean for Democrats?

Pignanelli: I am impressed with the number of business and community leaders — including Republicans — that express a healthy respect for Dabakis. This offers quiet hope to a number of Democrats concerned about the PR impact of a Dabakis chairmanship. A founder of Equality Utah — a local gay and lesbian rights organization and the strongest political force in Salt Lake City — Dabakis has the organizational skills required for the chairman position. But after his election, he will need to assure independents and moderate Republicans that his party will not be focused on just one issue.

Webb: Dabakis is a smart political operative who understands Utah culture and realities. If he wins, he will be a good party chair. Democrats have elected a number of activists on gay and lesbian issues, particularly in the legislature, who have emerged as thoughtful, pragmatic leaders. They have won the respect and friendship even of conservative Republicans. I expect Dabakis will do the same.

A majority of Americans refuse allegiance to either political party. Independents are a growing faction inside Utah politics. Are the local political parties struggling?

Pignanelli: American politics is in a state of flux with the two major parties attempting to define themselves with conflicting dynamics: globalism, nation building, free trade, protectionism, immigration, privacy, etc. Over time, the parties will determine their direction, which will spur defections but also new recruits. Until then, the struggle over ideology continues.

Webb: If mainstream people abandon political parties, extremists are more than happy to take over. It's messy, but mainstream people must stay in the game, fighting for reasonable positions and practical solutions, not just ideological purity. There is no alternative. The great problems this country and state face won't be solved by extremists. They will be solved by leaders of goodwill who come together to make the necessary tough decisions.

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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