Ashley Lowery, Deseret News
Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell said the impetus for a proposed statewide initiative among the Utah Republican Party was lingering frustration over the state party convention defeats of incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010 and Gov. Olene Walker in 2002.

SANDY — The Utah Republican Party, facing the possibility of a statewide initiative to create another avenue for political candidates to get on primary election ballots, held a frank discussion Saturday about possible reforms to its party caucus and convention system.

Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell said the impetus for proposed initiative was lingering frustration over the state party convention defeats of incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010 and Gov. Olene Walker in 2002. Both enjoyed support from mainstream Republicans but neither survived the party convention balloting.

"They (initiative backers) want a chance to have an alternate path" onto the ballot, Bell said.

But he cautioned, "If they do that, the system we have now is going to crater because people will just bypass it."  

One of the aims of the proposed initiative, headed by former Utah County Republican Party secretary Jeremy Roberts, is to expand the current process to encourage more voter participation. Presently, proponents say, only a small percentage of Utahns who become delegates decide the parties' nominees.

Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said his term as party chairman "has been all about growing the party." 

"In some ways, we have a gun to our head," he said of the proposed initiative. "This is not an idealistic conversation."

Still, Wright guided the committee through a series of discussions Saturday, addressing everything from how it operates to possible changes in the caucus and convention to criticisms of the party itself.

Committee members used electronic key pads to respond to poll questions on potential reforms to caucus night as well as election and convention processes.

Everything from helping mothers of young children attend caucus meetings to how the party selects candidates was open to discussion.

Committee member Adrielle Herring Bowler of Utah County urged the party faithful who go to extreme lengths to participate in party activities to consider the real life obstacles of people who likewise want to participate.

"We all feel sort of under attack (by the proposed initiative). There's something important for us to recognize. In some ways we brought this on ourselves. To the public, we are the party insiders. Frankly, we have been arrogant," Bowler said.

But others said if people want to participate, they need to make it a priority. One committee member said she would bring her children to caucus meetings if she could not find child care.

Still others questioned if the party was suffering more from perception problems than a broken system. 

Lisa Shepherd of Utah County said the state party needs hard data about the actual numbers of caucus attendees as well as voter turnout municipal elections before making wholesale changes to the system.

"I think that's really valid information to consider before we make any changes," she said.

Others took issue with publisher LaVarr Webb's role in the initiative movement, claiming he has the personal wealth to overcome the steep challenge of getting the initiative on the ballot.

Backers will need nearly 103,000 signatures of registered voters in 26 of the state's 29 counties to place an initiative on the 2014 election ballot.

Former U.S. Rep. Merrill Cook, who has backed unsuccessful ballot initiatives in the past, urged the party to be open to significant changes that are more inclusive or face the possibility of an open primary.

"I hope people will be open-minded. We don't lose any of our conservative, bedrock principles when we allow more people to participate," he said.

Cook said the party needs to stand firm against the initiative movement. "Our political system is not up for sale to the deepest pocket."

EDITORS NOTE: LaVarr Webb formerly was managing editor of the Deseret News. He and Democrat Frank Pignanelli write a weekly column on Utah politics for the newspaper.

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