First off, attorney general candidate Paul Van Dam says he's not ignoring his intraparty challenge from fellow Democrat L. Zane Gill.
Then, he launches a long litany that might be titled "The Sins of David Wilkinson," hardly mentioning Gill or his candidacy again.Van Dam says Wilkinson, the two-term attorney general, "farms out" too much legal work rather than developing the expertise to handle cases in-house. He also questions the attorney general's decision to prosecute cases such as the sensational Lehi child abuse case rather than leaving it to the local authorities. Finally, he faults the attorney general for spending too much time and taxpayer money on "pet proj-ects," such as defending Utah's cable TV regulation and attempting to unseat two state legislators because they are also state employees.
In sum, Wilkinson just has to go.
"I'm not running on any one issue," Van Dam said. "It comes down to the fact that David Wilkinson hasn't proven to be the kind of strong leader that office demands and that the state deserves."
Gill, too, reserves much of his criticism for Wilkinson, although he's not above a gentlemanly slap at Van Dam, who comes into the Democratic Party State Convention this weekend a favorite to snag the nomination and face the attorney general in November. A new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows Van Dam leading Gill 33-11 among registered voters, although 53 percent remain undecided.
Pointing to Van Dam's lengthy absence from public life since his stint at Salt Lake County attorney in the mid-1970s, Gill opines: "Paul Van Dam has been sitting on the sidelines watching the battle. Do you want a spectator or a participant?"
Gill is a native of Idaho and graduated from Idaho State University in German in 1981. He was a Fulbright scholar in Germany in 1975 and 1976 and earned his law degree from George Washington University in 1982. He is perhaps best known for his work in recent high-profile court cases, including his representation of Shauna Clark, the secretary who claimed former Salt Lake County Attorney Ted Cannon sexually harassed her.
Van Dam was Salt Lake County attorney from 1975 to 1978. He was a consultant to the National District Attorneys Association from 1974 to 1981.
He was an adjunct professor of law at the University of Utah from 1984 to 1986 and general counsel for insurance companies from 1985 to 1987.
During an interview, Van Dam suggested that Wilkinson's poor judgment and lack of experience are evident in many ways. The cable TV issue, doubtless Wilkinson's Achilles' heel in the upcoming election, is natural political fodder. Wilkinson spent $675,000 defending a statute Van Dam believes was obviously unconstitutional from the start.
"It offered a unique opportunity to see the workings of his mind," Van Dam said. "The utter futility of the case reflects Wilkinson's inexperience in litigation."
Rather than participate in the drafting of the 1985 law, Wilkinson should have convinced lawmakers of their folly, Van Dam contends. And once the law was passed, the attorney general had no business running up such a large legal tab defending an invalid statute.
"When the attorney postures himself as a fiscal conservative, and as a conservative in general, then why is it that he's not concerned with the fiscal aspect" of the cable case?
Van Dam also wonders why the attorney general's office became involved in child abuse cases when that role has historically fallen to the various county attorneys around the state. Without commenting on the merits of the case, Van Dam questions why the attorney general involved his office in the prosecution of Alan B. Hadfield, who was convicted of sexually abusing his two children.
"The attorney general's role is not to be a front-line person," Van Dam said.
Reminded he still faces an intra-party challenge from Gill, Van Dam suggests that his experience as county attorney gives him a leg up on a job Gill would have to learn from scratch.
"I have no desire at all to be particularly critical of Zane Gill," he said. "But the job is a messy job, and if you haven't done it, it takes considerable time to learn it. I've done that job and done it well, and I won't have to learn while I work."
Oddly enough, one of Gill's biggest hurdles at the Democratic convention may be convincing delegates he's really a Democrat. For most of them will know that Gill himself was selected as a delegate in 1986 - a delegate to the Republican state convention.
Gill insists that was an aberration, that he went to the Republican mass meetings because he was simply interested in and curious about Utah politics. He was surprised when they wanted to select him as a delegate and too flattered to refuse. He says, aside from that deviation, his sympathies and philosophies are solidly Democratic.
On the issues, Gill takes his obligatory shot at Wilkinson's support of the cable law ("The constitutional concerns should have been readily apparent"), and he echoes Van Dam's criticism that Wilkinson spends too much money hiring outside attorneys ("Morale is low because the staff attorneys don't feel he trusts them").
But Gill's overall criticisms have to do with what he sees as Wilkinson's basic lack of leadership skills. He says Wilkinson's poor leadership is evident in the bad communication between the attorney general's office and the governor and the Legislature. Gill says he could restore those vital information channels if he is elected.
"One reason people don't trust the attorney general's advice is that he is quite aloof," Gill said.
Like any incumbent, Utah Attorney General David L. Wilkinson is equipped with the blessing and/or bane of his record in office.
It's a record he's proud of. He points to his office's championing of the anti-drug cause as well as recent efforts to prosecute child sexual abusers around the state. He also points to the fine legal staff working to keep Utah's death row inmates en route to execution.
But he's not naive. He realizes his record also contains some political liabilities. Topping the list of potential drawbacks is his unsuccessful and costly defense of Utah's cable TV decency law, a battle that took him to the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court.
"There's no question my stand on cable hurt me," he acknowledges.
Public opinion polls showed Utahns sharply divided on the need for the law in the first place. An even larger majority wanted Wilkinson to cease and desist before he spent $675,000 defending it.
How does an incumbent parry such a potentially devastating haymaker?
"Well," says the attorney general with a wry smile, "I don't lead with it."
Indeed, he doesn't. But he doesn't duck, either. If pressed, Wilkinson is perfectly willing to defend his decision to dig in and fight for a statute he believes is morally and legally necessary.
He says he has an obligation to defend statutes legally enacted by the Legislature. Of course, he also helped draft the bill in 1985, but he says he did so only because he didn't want to be stuck defending a clinker of a cable law, such as the one passed in 1981.
"Ordinarily, I don't get involved in drafting bills," Wilkinson said. "But some bill was going to pass (in 1985), and I didn't want to get stuck defending an indefensible law."
But he points out that the Legislature must shoulder some of the responsibility. Since the bill passed "there have been four legislative sessions, and each time they could have repealed the bill. I was doing what the Legislature wanted me to do."
He sighs. "The most frustrating thing about being attorney general is that you have to deal with the law, and not everyone has enough sophistication to understand when a guy is just doing his duty."
Wilkinson, a Republican, was first elected in 1980, buoyed partly by the rising tide of Reaganism that swept the country that year. His second go-around in 1984 was something of a sleeper with an easy victory against Park City attorney Joe Tesch.
But Wilkinson will likely end up running against a recognizable name during this fall's election season. During their state convention this weekend, Democrats will nominate either former Salt Lake County Attorney Paul Van Dam or attorney L. Zane Gill, who is known through his work in several high-profile court cases. A Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows Van Dam trailing Wilkinson by 10 points - 40 percent to 30 percent - but 30 percent say they are undecided. Gill fares worse, 42-22 percent, when matched up with Wilkinson.
Another controversial issue - and one that draws political opponents out of the woodwork - is the attorney general's lawsuit against Reps. Janet Rose and R. Mont Evans. The two are also state employees - members of the executive branch - and Wilkinson believes their dual status violates the Utah Constitution's separation of powers.
He fought to keep the Legislature from seating them. When lawmakers ignored his advice, he sued, first in the Utah Supreme Court, which said it had no jurisdiction, then in 3rd District Court, which also claimed its hands were tied. Finally, Wilkinson emerged with a victory when he took the question back to the Supreme Court, which ordered the 3rd District judge to weigh the case's merits.
Despite legal and constitutional complexities, the attorney general sees the issue as very simple. "We're only urging the court to say the (lawmakers) have to make a choice."
And while Wilkinson would do nothing differently in his eight-year stint, he understandably would rather voters focus on less controversial aspects of his tenure.
For example, it was his decision to play a greater role in prosecuting child abuse cases in communities that either could not or would not devote the resources necessary to prosecute the complicated cases.
The attorney general also points to his office's vigilance in shepherding convicted murderers through the constitutional hoops en route to execution. Child killer Arthur Gary Bishop was executed this month, and while he willingly chose death, it still required considerable legal expertise from the attorney general's office to ensure procedures were followed. Hi Fi Shop killer Pierre Dale Selby died by lethal injection last August after a 13-year battle with the state.
Wilkinson says he will also press his opponent, whoever it is, about the death penalty.
"One question I will ask is how committed he is to fighting for the death penalty," he said. "I believe the death penalty is morally called for as an expression of society's outrage and concern."