SALT LAKE CITY — The infighting among Utah Republican Party officials flared up Tuesday when Rob Anderson, the party chairman, rejected a recent bylaw change apparently intended to spark a legal challenge of an unpopular election law.
That ignited outrage from Phill Wright, a member of the party's State Central Committee that passed the new bylaw last month barring candidates only in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts from gathering voter signatures.
"Rob Anderson is not the dictator-in-chief of the Utah Republican Party," Wright said, promising Anderson is "obviously going to be held accountable in some way." Asked what that would entail, Wright said he didn't "have an answer for you today."
In a letter to Republicans also signed by state GOP Vice Chairwoman Joni Crane and Treasurer Abram Young, Anderson said the change would violate the party's constitution, Utah state law and potentially the U.S. Constitution.
"As officers of the Utah Republican Party, duly elected by the delegates nearly a year ago, we take our duties seriously and will protect the right of our party's candidates to participate in a free and fair election," the letter states.
The new bylaw was not included in the revised copy of party bylaws submitted by Anderson after what he termed "a thorough legal and parliamentarian review" to Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who oversees state elections.
State Elections Director Justin Lee said the law requires a political party to file revised copies of their bylaws within 15 days of changes being made, a filing made by the "party liaison."
Lee said the liaison "is the person designated to work with our office" by the political party. For the Utah GOP, he said that's Anderson. But Lee said someone "would need to check with the party as to what they consider to be in effect."
Anderson said he doesn't know what to expect going forward from the wing of the party trying to undo the 2014 law still known as SB54 that permits signature gathering.
"It could be anything," the party chairman said, including another meeting called by members of the State Central Committee. He said while he hoped his action would end the friction, that's not what he's expecting.
"That's my hope, but it's not a reality. I don't think it is," Anderson said. "I think this will be drug out, on and on and on. I don't know when this fight against this current law will be over."
Wright said although he believes Anderson did not have the authority to drop the new bylaw from the document submitted to the lieutenant governor, there are no plans for another committee meeting before the party's state convention in April.
The latest round of fighting among Republican Party officials comes as Wright, who lost his bid to become party chairman to Anderson last year, and other supporters of the controversial bylaw appear to be readying a new legal challenge to SB54.
The Utah GOP already bypassed Anderson to continue appealing the loss of a federal court case over SB54, which created a dual path to the primary ballot, to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Now, two Republican candidates in the targeted congressional districts have signed up to gather voter signatures in addition to competing for delegate support through the party's traditional caucus and convention system.
Wright said he believes those candidates have already forfeited their membership in the party through the election.
But he said a lawsuit would not be triggered unless they are certified as candidates by the lieutenant governor's office for the primary ballot by gathering voter signatures.
Cox has said he is "duty-bound to ensure that all candidates who rely on the existing law are included on the ballot." The Utah GOP registered with the state as a qualified political party last year, which must allow candidates the signature gathering option.
The lieutenant governor told KUER Radio that if his office gets a request to remove someone from the party, it "would be denied because that candidate had relied on that certification from the party."
Kevin Probasco, who filed a declaration with the state last Thursday that he intended to gather voter signatures to take on Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, in the 1st District GOP primary, said he is "pressing ahead. This is absolutely serious."
He called the bylaw change a "ridiculous exercise" and said as an attorney, he can "take care of myself" if his status as Republican is challenged because he's gathering signatures.14 comments on this story
The other candidate who would be impacted by the bylaw, Mary Burkett, told the Deseret News Monday she was "stepping forward and saying enough" by gathering signatures to help "bring this to a legal conclusion."
Burkett, who is a member of the State Central Committee but did not attend the meeting where the bylaw was changed, said she believes a political party's nominees should be chosen through the caucus and convention system.
But Probasco said the caucus system is "made for people who can schmooze delegates." He said he is not in the race to help make a case for barring signature gathering.
"I am not a test case," he said. "In fact, I'm their worst nightmare."