Embattled state Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, believes he will survive the May 5 Salt Lake County GOP convention even though he has four Republicans running against him.
But it's clearly an uphill fight for the two-term incumbent some of the 198 Republican county delegates in his District 10 are holding meet-the-candidate nights and not inviting Buttars to attend.
The four Republicans seeking to replace Buttars Trevor Darby, Kathy Hilton, Gary Armstrong and Wendy Smith-DeRusha are hoping they can help with that ouster, which stems in no small part from comments Buttars made during the 2008 Legislature on the Senate floor during debate over a school district bill. He said of the bill: "This baby is black ... it is an ugly, dark thing."
While Buttars apologized quickly after other senators told him his comments could be misconstrued as racist, the Salt Lake Chapter of the NAACP still called for his resignation. Buttars refused to resign, and instead announced that he would seek a third, four-year term this year. It was not the first verbal stumble by Buttars, who has criticized gay student clubs and what he sees as anti-traditional-marriage movements.
The chances for Buttars' defeat this year may be good. A Deseret News/KSL-TV poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates in late March found that among Senate District 10 registered voters, 67 percent said it is time to let someone new serve, and among only GOP voters in District 10, 54 percent said it was time to elect a new senator. Despite the pressure, Buttars remains optimistic and said he has been talking to delegates about the issues and trying to address the issues surrounding his comments.
"It's pretty much the usual," he said. "I'm doing what I always do. I just work hard." But he is not able to work everywhere, since some delegate-organized candidate forums have not included him.
Buttars said he's well aware of the "three or four" delegate meetings that have, and will, exclude him. "It is very tacky to have a meet-the-candidate night and not invite all the candidates," Buttars said. But he's still working hard, holding breakfasts, lunches and dinners with delegates, and finding nearly all of them willing to listen to him.
He didn't want to talk about how delegates are receiving him, especially what he is hearing or not about his black baby comments. "Yes, I believe I'll come out of the convention," said Buttars, 66.
Darby and Hilton attended the meetings where Buttars was not invited, which included the four challengers. They have also attended meet-the-candidate nights where Buttars has been invited and did attend.
Darby said the delegates who organized the non-Buttars meetings "already know Buttars and his stand. They wanted to spend the time getting to know us, the new candidates, what we want to do."
Darby, 38, owner of an industrial staffing firm, said he has talked to more than half of the nearly-200 delegates "and 90 percent are telling me they want a change."
Hilton, 56, a West Jordan City Council member and school district financial officer, said she doesn't know if Buttars will come out of the convention. "He does have his supporters among the delegates I've talked to," she said.
"But many delegates also want a change in the state Senate."
If any candidate wins 60 percent of their district delegates in the convention, he or she is the outright GOP nominee. If no one gets 60 percent, then the top two vote-getters go to a late June Republican Party primary. The party nominee will face Democrat John Rendell and a Constitution Party nominee in November.
Both Darby and Hilton said they are not hearing comments specifically about Buttars' baby remark in their discussions with delegates, but the undercurrent still seems to be there.
"Sen. Buttars and I are probably very close on issues. He is very conservative and so am I," Darby said. "But there are always arguments and disagreements in politics. And (Buttars) seems to take the most abrasive approach trying to get his voice heard by being abrasive."
There are also criticisms about his voting attendance record. Challenger Armstrong pointed to a Deseret News analysis that showed Buttars was second to last in the Senate when it comes to effectiveness in passing bills this past session. He said the delegates he talks to are sending the message: "We definitely need someone new in there." But it's not solely because of the controversy surrounding him. "It's more content-based than the black baby comment," he said. "They just don't feel like the image he portrays is what they want portraying them."
Hilton said that when Buttars went into "hiding" after his stumble during the end of the 2008 session, there were a number of important votes he missed, including a vote on a school district split bill. The Jordan School District and Buttars' District 10 went through a controversial district split in 2007. And Hilton said while she didn't oppose the original school district law passed recently by the Legislature, she does oppose how the Jordan District split vote was done. She also opposed private school vouchers, while Buttars supports them. Vouchers were voted down by citizens last November.
"You can't miss votes like that," said Hilton, who is in her third term on the council. "No matter what happens, you can't run away and hide."
Another candidate, Smith-DeRusha, said the district is looking for someone "who will get something done, as opposed to standing on a pulpit." She pointed to Buttars' so-called message bills, such as his attempt at barring Salt Lake City from initiating a domestic partner registry. That effort failed and lawmakers instead approved guidelines for such registries.
"I don't need another message bill, I want someone to do something for the west side," Smith-DeRusha said. "It's time to elect a true conservative."
Activist groups, from the NAACP to the Eagle Forum, have also targeted the district. Jeannetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake Branch of the NAACP, said that while the group will not endorse any particular candidate, they are working to draw attention to Buttars' "mean-spirited way of doing things."Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, defends Buttars' voting record. She points out that the remark that started Buttars' woes came while he was speaking out for west-side schools. "The whole thing started as a discussion on the split of the school district and him standing up and fighting for his district to make sure the west side got the money they deserved," she said.