Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Weighing the effects of the Republican State Convention

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 6 2015 2:31 a.m. MDT

Delegate Josh Melessa of Washington County raises his hand before voicing his opinion during the Utah Republican Party's annual organizing convention in Sandy, Utah on Saturday, May 18, 2013. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press) Delegate Josh Melessa of Washington County raises his hand before voicing his opinion during the Utah Republican Party's annual organizing convention in Sandy, Utah on Saturday, May 18, 2013. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

At the recent Republican State Convention, delegates rejected reforms designed to open the caucus/convention nominating system to broader participation.

Why did convention delegates reject these changes recommended by party leadership?

Pignanelli: "Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power." — George Bernard Shaw

Ultra right-wing extremists share the personality traits of most teenagers (i.e. selfish priorities, unrealistic expectations, focus on minutia, etc.) When I confront the adolescents in my home about the family room mess, the following responses are given: "There is no mess"; "It's not my mess"; "I don't have to clean up the mess ... you're not the boss of me." Confronted with mild options to alter the nomination process, Republican delegates responded in the same manner: "There are no problems, when we control the results"; "Our ideological demands do not cause difficulties"; "We have no obligation to fix the system ... you're not the boss of us."

Individually, most delegates are nice people. But when packed together, a terrible herd mentality takes over. Without any concern to damaging the Republican brand, angry rhetoric and thoughtless actions ensue (i.e., disparaging the noble and visionary Utah Compact on Immigration). In such conditions, there is little enlightenment to abandon their power for the benefit of the party.

Webb: Political power in Utah is manifested most fundamentally in the caucus/convention system. A relatively small number of party activists wield enormous power in selecting candidates, and thus disproportionately influence public policy — and not many of them want to share that power among all Republican voters.

Delegates are mostly fine people who are sometimes more passionate and extreme in their political views than Republicans in general. Some, unfortunately, have even stated in public meetings that they don't want increased participation in the political process. They believe they are better informed, have the right answers, and they don't want anyone but themselves selecting candidates or influencing public policy. I believe that attitude is elitist and arrogant, and I trust Utahns, in general, not just activists, to make wise candidate and policy choices.

What's next? Will the Count My Vote group proposing reforms resort to a ballot initiative and will this effort be successful? (Ballot measures don't have a strong record of success.)

Pignanelli: Utahns want changes to the current system, but only a handful will sacrifice a Saturday in front of a grocery store to gather petition signatures. Many affluent Utahns hate the delegate process but few will contribute serious money to the effort (at least $400,000 will be needed to pay professional signature gatherers). Further, legal obstacles for initiatives are so burdensome that there is no realistic chance of success for any effort. The signature requirement is a logistical nightmare: 10 percent of the presidential voter turnout in 26 of 29 Senate districts.

I commend the Count My Vote effort, but there is no chance for success. If proven wrong in 2014, I shall proclaim in this column that LaVarr is the smartest and most erudite person on the planet, and then I will eat the printed pages of this column.

Webb: Frank's pledge, alone, makes this effort worthwhile. I have been involved in the Count My Vote initiative for several months. Our desire is to increase participation in the political process. We have worked closely with concerned and supportive party leaders. We have also consulted with a number of sympathetic state legislators, who all said they saw little chance of reforms being approved by lawmakers.

Thus, it is likely the proposal to increase participation will be taken directly to citizens. It is a very difficult task, but a tiny bit of support does exist — among top business leaders, chambers of commerce, numerous other business associations, city and county leaders, former elected officials at all levels, past GOP leadership, nonprofits, religious leaders, news media editorial boards, all levels of the public education and higher education communities, labor unions and public employees — not to mention a vast majority of Utahns. Not a bad coalition. Would you like peanut butter and honey on your newspaper sandwich, Frank?

What impact will the convention have on Utah politics?

Pignanelli: Although most elected officials harbor concerns about delegates, no effort was made in the last legislative session to affect change. This reluctance to buck the system has now hardened into concrete. Knowing that delegates will determine their political future in 2014 and beyond, lawmakers of both parties must pay deference to these extremists. This will impact the acidity of partisan rhetoric and ultimately the policy deliberations of even sane decision makers.

Webb: Positions taken at conventions by a relative handful of activists have outsized influence on the behavior of elected officials. Conventions are not deliberative bodies. Resolutions at the recent convention on the Utah Compact, Common Core, and Medicaid expansion were discussed for only 10 minutes each and many delegates knew little about the issues. But the emotional, reactionary and hard-right positions taken on those issues, not representative of Utahns in general, will have outsized and long-lasting impact on public policy in this state. It's a lousy way to make public policy, and that's why the process needs to be improved.

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.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company