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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Record turnout gives color to Utah political landscape

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 6:28 p.m. MDT

Janice Gerritsen, left, and Kathryn Fuller vote in favor of allowing five latecomers to be credentialed as delegates at the Salt Lake County GOP convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 14, 2012. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Janice Gerritsen, left, and Kathryn Fuller vote in favor of allowing five latecomers to be credentialed as delegates at the Salt Lake County GOP convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 14, 2012. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

The big political events of the week were the Saturday state party conventions — well after our deadline. So our trenchant convention analysis will have to wait. (If you can't handle the suspense, call us.)

But plenty of other political questions are worth discussing.

Salt Lake County Democrats avoided a primary in the county mayoral race by nominating State Sen. Ben McAdams. Republicans Mark Crockett, a former County Council member who won nearly 60 percent in the GOP county convention, and Mike Winder, West Valley City mayor, will square off in a primary. Were these results surprising?

Webb: Not for the Democrats. McAdams is the party's rising star, a solid and attractive candidate. Democrats desperately want to retain the county mayorship, so they went to extraordinary lengths to avoid a primary, allowing McAdams to focus full attention on the general election and not have to fight a fellow Democrat.

Salt Lake County mayor candidate Ben McAdams meets people at the Salt Lake County Democratic convention. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Salt Lake County mayor candidate Ben McAdams meets people at the Salt Lake County Democratic convention. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Crockett's strength was a little surprising. The conventional wisdom was that Winder and Richard Snelgrove, a current County Council member, would emerge from the convention.

Winder starts with superior name identification and lots of high-level endorsements but continues to be dogged by the Richard Burwash controversy, in which he submitted articles to news media under a fake name.

Crockett is an attractive candidate. He is intense and driven, and I sometimes hear people describe him as "hard-headed" and "difficult to work with." Channeled properly, those don't have to be negative character traits.

Pignanelli: "Allegiance to party can utterly upend a man's moral constitution and make a temporary fool of him." — Mark Twain

Partisans on both sides agree an historic event occurred a week ago: the Salt Lake County Democratic convention was better organized than the Republican convention held the same day. Democrats faced a tough choice between State Senators Ross Romero and McAdams. With their legal and legislative experience, they are formidable campaigners. Yet, for several weeks leading to the Democratic gathering, insiders noticed McAdams was gaining traction with the new batch of delegates elected mid-March, and the convention results were not a surprise. After a heated contest, Romero demonstrated real class by endorsing McAdams.

Mark Crockett greets people after getting 32 percent of the votes in the first round of balloting for Salt Lake County mayor. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Mark Crockett greets people after getting 32 percent of the votes in the first round of balloting for Salt Lake County mayor. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

The general perception early this year was Winder would face difficulty overcoming his media issues. Yet, by March, insiders commented that this "energizer bunny" was stirring delegates with his enthusiasm. Many observers were impressed with Crockett's business credentials, but few projected his amazing victory (58 percent) at the convention. He moves toward the primary with great momentum.

Can McAdams retain the county mayorship for Democrats in a tough election year?

Pignanelli: McAdams is a great flag bearer for the Democrats. He can attract Republican support — a necessary ingredient for success in the general election. GOP lawmakers profess affection for his style and many municipal officials have endorsed his candidacy. But he must craft a compelling message to move independent and Republican voters who will march to the polling booths for Mitt Romney. If he develops the message, there is no better messenger.

Webb: With Congressman Jim Matheson also in serious danger, Democrats risk total irrelevancy in Utah if they don't retain the county mayorship. All they'll have left is Pignanelli. With Romney at the top of the ticket, Republicans will turn out in big numbers. However, Salt Lake County independents and moderate Republicans have shown an easy willingness to cross party lines and vote for a Democrat down-ballot.

McAdams will have to bring out the Democratic base, plus attract some Republican votes to win. The Republican nominee will be the favorite, but this will be a close race. Don't count McAdams out.

Most of the county conventions in recent weeks experienced record turnouts. Is this a trend, and what does it mean short term and long term for politics in Utah?

Webb: Utahns have a keen interest in politics this year, bolstered by Romney in the national spotlight, big races up and down the ballot and strong encouragement from the LDS Church to get involved. Larger participation means a tilt to more mainstream politics and less domination by the passionate extremes — a very positive development. Long term, however, it doesn't mean much unless we can find a way to keep the masses engaged. The caucus/convention system is working well this year, but some modest structural reforms are still necessary to ensure broad participation.

Pignanelli: Polls and convention results indicate a moderate and interesting flavor for 2012 delegates. Democrats eliminated Rep. Brian Doughty, Utah's only openly gay legislator. Conversely, Republicans sent Melvin Nimer and Joe Demma to the primary for the at-large district seat. Nimer is chairman of the Log Cabin Republicans, a caucus for gay GOP members. This really speaks to the change in delegates.

But the 2016 election cycle is an unusual year without statewide races on the ballot. Therefore, unless a compelling issue arises (i.e., immigration), the push for Utahns to attend the precinct caucuses will be diminished. The sensible tone at recent conventions may be a short-term miracle.

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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