Ever since former Big Water Mayor Alex Joseph joined the Libertarian Par-ty and so became the first Utah official in that minor party's ranks, Utah Libertarians have searched for a way to sit again in a seat of power.
Now they have a shot at getting a party member on the floor of the Utah House.Davis County's House District 18 GOP primary has a choice of two candidates - Rep. Susan Koehn, who has apparently offended some arch-conservatives in her area, and Richard G. Brown, a self-professed constitutional advocate who is an officer in the Libertarian Party. They're the only two in the race; the winner June 23 goes to the Utah House.
Brown, 74, admits his Libertarian membership, but adds he's voted Republican his whole life and enthusiastically embraces both the Davis County and state Republican Party platforms.
"Richard is the southern Davis County vice chair of the county Libertarian Party," says Jim Dexter, state Libertarian Party chair. "If he wins (the primary), we'll have our first Libertarian in the Utah House," Dexter declares.
Koehn, R-Woods Cross, says she may not be some Davis County conservatives' poster girl - she has been criticized by the arch-conservative group GrassRoots, which after several years of dormancy is active again in GOP politics - but she says she is "a lifelong Republican who has supported the state and county platform down the line.
"I've been a Republican for 20 years. My father was a three-term Davis County sheriff, running as a Republican," says Koehn, 37. "I've been a fiscal conservative who's voted with the House (GOP) majority 99 percent of the time."
Not so, says Brown. He claims Koehn "is more liberal than the most liberal Democrat in the Utah House."
Koehn says Brown doesn't belong in the Republican primary at all, that some conservatives in the area have latched on to him because of their opposition to her. Koehn failed to eliminate Brown at the Davis County GOP convention, where he got enough of the delegate vote to make it into a primary.
Koehn said GrassRoots leaders confronted her at the start of the 1998 Legislature "and told me they were going to find someone to run against me" within the Republican Party. "I just didn't think it would be a Libertarian," she said.
Koehn this year co-founded the so-called "mainstream" GOP caucus in the House, a group of 25 or so mostly urban GOP representatives who meet to discuss, and sometimes oppose, issues pushed by the Cowboy Caucus of rural, conservative Republican House members.
"This `mainstream' group is causing real problems in the House," says Brown, because sometimes it opposes "conservative issues."
Ridiculous, says Koehn. She says the mainstream caucus was formed because rural GOP House members were getting their own way, in part because there was no alternative voice, especially on some budget issues important to urban Utahns. She adds GrassRoots is a "fringe" GOP group "that has its own agenda, its own platform" separate from the county and state party platforms.
Steve Stromness, GrassRoots newsletter editor and executive director, says the group decided to not formally endorse any candidates this year. "But I wouldn't be surprised that some members would individually look for an alternative" to Koehn "because she didn't fare well on our report card." GrassRoots president and vice president are, respectively, former Utah House members Ted Bradford and Reese Hunter, both known for their conservative speeches and voting records.
GrassRoots listed 23 specific votes in the 1998 Legislature that it says hits upon GrassRoots' core values and then ranked House members accordingly. Koehn got a 22 percent approval ranking, out of 100 percent possible, by the conservative group. Only one other GOP representative, Rep. Lamont Tyler, R-East Millcreek, got a lower GrassRoots ranking. A newsletter with the rankings was passed out at the state and county GOP conventions.
"One reason (Brown) and GrassRoots oppose me is because I voted to allocate $400,000 to the Davis County Convention Center. We need that center, but they don't like it," said Koehn.
Brown says he decided to run - the first time he's sought elective office - because leaders of the LDS Church urged members in January to get involved politically this year. A Mormon, Brown said when his leaders gave that advice, "I decided now was a good time to take it."
Brown makes no apologies for his Libertarian roots. He says he naturally gravitated to the Libertarian Party several years ago because it's the party of limited government and closest to what the Founding Fathers wanted the country to be.
"Both the major parties are pushing this country off a cliff," says Brown, who added he's been studying the Constitution and liberty since World War II. "The difference is, the Democrats are going 70 miles per hour toward the edge, the Republicans are going 60 miles per hour. The Libertarians are the only ones who want to turn the tide," said Brown.
He ran as a Republican, Brown says, because he knew he couldn't win as a Libertarian. "I would just be a name on the ballot. But as a Republican I can win and I can bring my ideals to the Utah House and support the Republican (Party) platform. It's too bad (most of) the Republicans in the House don't support it."
Brown said if voters in the district knew what Libertarians stood for - above all, getting government out of people's lives - they'd have no trouble voting for candidates in that party. But they don't, he said.
Dexter says Brown's actions are politically proper. "The Republican principles are really a subset of Libertarian principles. We (Libertarians) have no problem at all endorsing the Republican platform or running as Republicans."
But some Republicans have a problem with that. Rob Bishop, state GOP chair, says one of his main goals this year is to find a way to ban Libertarians and other "interlopers" from GOP ranks.
One way to do that, says Bishop, is to change party bylaws so anyone who is an officer, a delegate or a candidate in another party one year before declaring they're a Republican can't be a GOP delegate or candidate. If those rules were in effect today, Brown wouldn't be certified as a Republican, wouldn't have been allowed into the Davis County GOP convention and wouldn't be in a primary with Koehn.
Dexter says Bishop's complaints are silly, possibly illegal. "They (GOP leaders) didn't follow their own bylaws in their own (state and county) conventions, aren't following them today" in how the party operates. "So what else is new?" says Dexter.
He refers to Republicans disallowing so-called "fusion" candidates in their conventions. Brown, like half a dozen other candidates, filed as both a Libertarian and a Republican. But when GOP officials told Brown he wouldn't be allowed in the Davis County GOP Convention unless he withdrew his Libertarian filing, he did so. "They blackmailed a number of candidates; Dick just survived" the convention and got into a primary where many others didn't, says Dexter.
House District 18 covers Centerville, West Bountiful, Woods Cross and the northwest corner of Bountiful, generally north of 1400 North and west of 200 West.