Salt Lake County GOP Chairman Peter Van Alstyne was supposed to be a conciliatory party leader, bringing together the right-wing, moderate and liberal elements of the county organization.
But he ended up being one of the most controversial county political leaders in recent times, initiated into the job during a bitter Salt Lake City Council race that was supposed to be non-partisan and splitting Republicans down the middle by opposing Republican John Harmer in the GOP 3rd Congressional District race last year.Even Van Alstyne's leaving has an unexpected twist.
After deciding not to seek another two-year term, he's convening the Salt Lake County Organizing Convention a month or two early - it will be held Saturday in Murray High School's auditorium - so he can get out now.
Van Alstyne says he may have made some mistakes, but he takes nothing back. "No apologies for anything."
State GOP sources who asked not to be named said a number of Salt Lake County Republican Central Committee members actually wanted to hold the organizing convention in January to elect Van Alstyne's replacement - the earliest time allowed by law. "They wanted him out, and fast," one source said. Historically, county organizing conventions are held in April or May. No one can remember one being held in early March, much less in January.
Van Alstyne laughs at that assessment. "It was I who suggested to the (county) executive committee last fall that we hold the convention in January. It made sense to me to have the new chairman in place before our major February fund-raising event - the Lincoln Dinner - so he or she could plan the calendar-year budget.
"But the executive committee said no way, it had to be in the spring after the Legislature, like always. It's the kind of traditional thinking that I've tried to change the past two years," Van Alstyne says.
He's holding the convention in early March instead of April or May because he recently has taken on "important personal assignments outside of politics and my work" and his schedule for April is already full, leaving little time for the convention.
Van Alstyne got two political strikes against him when he injected himself into the Salt Lake City Council District 5 race in the summer of 1989, just after being elected county GOP chairman, and then when he publicly opposed Harmer's 1990 3rd District candidacy, starting a firestorm among GOP loyalists. In Republican-dominated Utah, it's almost heresy for a GOP party leader to take sides in a Republican primary contest.
But even those actions - and Van Alstyne vehemently defends them both - could be forgiven if he had led the party to victories in 1990. Unfortunately, he didn't.
Republicans lost several Utah Senate seats to Democrats in the county and several state House seats as well. Worse, Republicans lost two seats - and the majority - on the Salt Lake County Commission. Democratic Commissioners Randy Horiuchi and Jim Bradley now control the commission, the first Democratic majority on the commission in 15 years.
"I haven't felt any blame on me or the county party for those losses," Van Alstyne says. "There are many factors in those losses, the greatest being, plain and simple, a GOP backlash last year, something out of anyone's control."
In summer 1989, Van Alstyne criticized Councilman Tom Godfrey for speaking to a convention of gay men and lesbians. Van Alstyne demanded to know Godfrey's stands on homosexuality and family values. City races are traditionally non-partisan, with political party leaders either working behind the scenes or staying out of them completely. Rarely does a county chairman openly challenge a candidate from the opposing party.
"I was new. I asked good questions, questions that needed to be asked. But I got very bad political advice and, unfortunately, I took it," Van Alstyne says.
He makes no apologies at all for his challenge of Harmer a year later. "I did what was right (in questioning Harmer's truthfulness in dealing with his much-publicized personal financial problems)." Harmer demanded that Van Alstyne resign immediately. Van Alstyne refused. "I stood on a principle, and I take nothing back. No apologies at all," Van Alstyne says. "I hope Republicans will remember why I did it."
Unfortunately for Republicans, the GOP 3rd District congressional primary race deteriorated badly. The primary winner, Karl Snow, couldn't recover, especially with Harmer loyalists crossing over and helping Democratic newcomer Bill Orton. In the most Republican district in the nation - which takes in the southwest part of Salt Lake County - Orton beat Snow and went to Congress.
"The 3rd District problem (Orton's win) certainly affected our (Salt Lake) County Commission races and some of the legislative races as well. It didn't help us," Van Alstyne says.