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Factions in GOP to be muted?

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An old horse trader, Met Johnson, coined the term "Cowboy Caucus" for the group of conservative Utah House Republicans he joined in the early 1990s.

But the cowboys grew to include urban Republican conservatives who brought taxes and moral issues into the mix. As they grew in size and influence — and as one of their own, Mel Brown, became speaker — the power they wielded in the 75-member House grew out of proportion to their numbers.

And so, several years ago, a dozen or so moderate GOP House members formed their own caucus, calling it the "mainstream" caucus. The philosophical battles between the two increased — getting nasty at times, spilling out into Republican Party challenges at election time.

Politics and hard feelings arose.

At the formation of the mainstream caucus, one moderate GOP House member said, "Sixteen men (in the Cowboy Caucus) are making the decisions in the 104-member Legislature, and that's wrong."

Now House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, says he sees an opportunity — with a number of conservative and moderate incumbents leaving this election year — to mute the two caucuses. Maybe do away with them altogether.

It's not good to have splinter groups; better to build unity in the main GOP caucus, he says.

For outsiders, the internal workings of the Utah House may mean little. But to lobbyists, special interest groups and others seeking to grasp the levers of power in the Legislature — and to affect taxes and laws — what happens in the 2001 session could set the tone for years to come.

"So many people are leaving, through voluntary retirement or forced retirement by the electorate, that there are some real opportunities here," said Stephens, who after the November election will seek a second two-year term as speaker.

He ticks off who will be gone: Brown, R-Midvale, and Rep. Dennis Iverson, R-Washington, are retiring. Reps. Bill Wright, R-Elberta, and Bill Hickman, R-St. George, are trying to move up to the Senate. Rep. Evan Olsen, R-Young Ward, was defeated in the June primary election.

All five were strong core members of the Cowboy Caucus.

In the mainstream caucus, Rep. Susan Koehn, R-Woods Cross, is retiring. Rep. Lloyd Frandsen, R-South Jordan, was defeated in his attempt to move to the Senate, and Rep. Lowell Nelson, R-Highland, lost his re-election bid.

Koehn and Frandsen were leaders in forming the mainstream caucus; Nelson was a member.

As some leave, others in the two factions have moved into leadership — and have stepped back from their caucuses to seek overall unity.

House Majority Whip Dave Ure, R-Kamas, and Rep. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch, an appointed member of leadership, were core members of the conservative caucus. House Majority Assistant Whip Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, was one of the leaders of the mainstream caucus. All three have backed away from their groups because of leadership roles.

In short, both caucuses see their leader ranks dwindling.

But whether either caucus will disband is another question.

"If they are going to continue meeting, I think we should," says Rep. Lamont Tyler, R-Millcreek, a leader in the mainstream caucus.

Hatch says the Cowboy Caucus may actually change, moving back to rural issues like land control and water development, away from some of the "other issues" like taxes and gun control that dominated the conservatives the past six or eight years.

He believes rural lawmakers must stick together, however, because they are so heavily outnumbered by urban legislators.

"It may be more healthy for the (Republican) party" in the Legislature if the Cowboy Caucus did disband, said Hatch. "But we still have to get together to sacrifice some of our personal issues so we can achieve an agenda for rural Utah.

"Otherwise, we just don't have the numbers. We may want to move away from the fiscal or social issues that we've seen (in the caucus) in the past," Hatch said.

Tyler is joined by Rep. Afton Bradshaw, R-Salt Lake, in saying the mainstream caucus doesn't want to unilaterally disarm.

"Some of the (moderates) were intimidated by the cowboys. Hey, they carry guns and ride horses," Bradshaw joked.

But there's another aspect, she adds. "There's no question (the right of the Republican Party) has gone after some of us, tried to defeat us. I've had challenges the last several elections" from the party's right. Moderates challenged by conservatives all won this year, in either the conventions or the primary, she said. "But it's good to be in a group of like-minded people, to get together, gain moral and political support."

And it's just those political issues that worry Stephens. "These caucuses tend to label people — conservative or mainstream — and labeling doesn't help. It divides." Internal battles take on an us-vs.-them mentality.

"I have no problem with a rural caucus and an urban caucus. But a political division that leads to competition over whose political will passes up here — not good," Stephens said.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com