Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Political questions to ponder while honoring mothers

Published: Sunday, May 13 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Utah State Capitol, Jan. 23, 2012.  (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) The Utah State Capitol, Jan. 23, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Some readers may find this hard to believe, but political hacks (like us) do have mothers. (LaVarr's mother has long since departed this world, but Frank's mother is still around to, when necessary, spank him.)

We apologize to our mothers that we haven't fulfilled their expectations to become brain surgeons and instead have fallen into rather unsavory professions as political hired guns. We would say we aspire to be as well-respected as used car salesmen, but that would be a terrible insult to used car salesmen. We wish all mothers a Happy Mother's Day!

Anyway, political questions are bouncing around in our fertile minds in this spring of the 2012 election cycle.

The Gary Herbert administration is being criticized for the hacking of a computer containing personal Medicaid records and for controversies surrounding the firing and rehiring of a Department of Transportation employee. Will these issues significantly impact the gubernatorial election?

Pignanelli: "All issues are political issues." — George Orwell Peter Cooke and the Democrats are clever in their strategic use of these issues. Questions have been raised about Gov. Gary Herbert's retention of UDOT leaders and his administrative style — but there is not a personal attack on the governor's ethics. This guarantees media coverage without offending Utahns sensibilities. However, by summer the UDOT controversy loses steam because the underlying story is complicated and Utahns are not personally engaged in the matter.

Conversely, the Medicaid record breach holds potential for Cooke ... or Herbert. Upon learning of the exposure, Utahns were sympathetic to the plight of indigent citizens. But when thousands of individuals — who are far from Medicaid status — received letters explaining the release of personal information to East European thugs, the proverbial fan was hit with a distasteful substance. (Yours truly received such a letter.) Utahns were shocked and angered to learn that medical providers frequently sent their personal information to Medicaid, even when covered by private insurance. Thus, the question has evolved beyond just the storage of records, into "Why are the doctors and hospitals sending my records to the state?" Many Utahns have and will be impacted by this controversy and it could define gubernatorial debates. But this is a jump-ball issue: Cooke or Herbert has the potential to develop a position most appealing to Utahns for the protection of their records.

Webb: With 25,000 employees of one sort or another, Utah state government is a big operation, and some goof-ups are bound to occur. Placed in proper context, our state government is well-managed and highly professional. The state's overall excellent record speaks for itself. At least the governor's security detail does not consort with prostitutes, and its administrative services department does not throw extravagant, million-dollar conferences in Las Vegas, a la the Obama administration.

Utah's Department of Transportation is particularly well-run, and Herbert is wise to stand by Director John Njord, who has saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars with his good management. The Democrats have a hard time finding issues to run on, so they grasp at straws. I'm confident both of these controversies will be fully investigated and procedures will be established to avoid problems in the future.

Same-sex marriage is again in the national news. Were the statements supporting same-sex marriage by Vice President Joseph Biden and eventually by President Barack Obama a series of bumbling mistakes or an intentional campaign ploy?

Webb: It was a stunning flip-flop by Obama, but just like his private promise to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" on missile defense after the election, his "evolving" position on this issue was fully expected, post-election, to become a full-force endorsement of gay marriage. After, no doubt, looking at the latest polls in swing states, the timetable got moved up.

The institution of marriage is already not doing so well, given the high percentage of children born out of wedlock and high rates of divorce. And as the traditional family crumbles, so does society. We wouldn't need nearly as much government, or high taxes, if we had stronger families. A large share of society's ills, and the need for government intervention, map directly back to dysfunctional marriages and families. When the most powerful person on Earth takes a position that will inevitably further weaken traditional marriage, it's a sad day.

Pignanelli: Never underestimate the Chicago boys running the Obama campaign. They understand close races in a dozen states will determine the presidential election and hope this bold move will garner Americans under the age of 30 (including independents and moderate Republicans) who are fine with same-sex marriage. Voters opposed were not going to support Obama anyway, and the base is now rejuvenated. The Obama pros knew that the president could just not announce this policy suddenly, but chose a strategy of dribbling it out over several days.

What is the immediate impact on Utah politics?

Pignanelli: Utah Democratic candidates must decide to either publicly embrace or distance themselves from the president — and do so with an articulate message. Either approach is not fatal for Utah's minority party, although waffling will be. The economic issues important to Utahns will determine their fate this election year.

Webb: Obama's position will hurt Democratic candidates in Utah. He's their leader, their standard-bearer, the face of their party. It focuses attention on the issue in Utah, where before it was below the radar.

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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