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Political-party heads hold thankless jobs

There are a lot of people with thankless jobs in this world. Certainly among them are those souls who serve as county and state political party chairmen and chairwomen.

Nearly all are not paid. Some do it, frankly, because they figure getting to know all the county and state delegates in their party is a good way to later win a nomination for an elective office they wish to hold.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, served two terms as state GOP chairman before he ran for the 1st Congressional District in 2002.

His connections with delegates probably helped him, although he did not win the nomination outright in the state GOP convention. He had to win the primary.

But most party chairs run and serve because they believe in the political philosophy of their party and want to see more like-minded people elected to office — they want Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians drafting new laws and ordinances, overseeing taxation levels of city, county and state budgets as they themselves would like it done.

I can say from experience that a number of party leaders — a few former Salt Lake County Republican chairmen come to mind — may agree that deciding to head a political party was one of the worst decisions they ever made.

Party leaders can be dogged by party loyalists who, for whatever reasons, believe their party is being hijacked by non-believers, insiders, outsiders or toadies of the party leaders themselves.

The leaders toil in obscurity until some misstep causes them to stumble into the public limelight, facing TV cameras and newspaper reporters.

Every year the leaders oversee their county and state conventions where they themselves are up for election or they have to organize the often confusing convention elections of dozens of public office candidates — most of whom believe the leader is in one way or another taking sides against them.

At every convention are a handful of resolutions or bylaw changes that range from the rational and reasonable to the down-right nutty. If a really whacky resolution passes, party members not in attendance shake their heads wondering why in the world the party chairman let that thing get through.

And woe be it if the leader doesn't know by heart Robert's Rules of Order and/or his party's bylaws, for he will likely be shouted down by "point of order, Mr. Chairman," sometime during the convention.

In short, I've wondered if seeking to be a party leader doesn't somehow mean you like a certain amount of pain.

There is another side to it, however.

Party leaders — especially the state Republican and Democratic chairmen — are the spokesmen for their groups' philosophical ideas. They hobnob with the state's elite. If their party happens to hold the White House, probably within a four- or eight-year presidency they will get an invite to a White House dinner.

They can walk any time into the Capitol Hill offices of their U.S. Senate and House members.

Still, Bishop used to joke that the "power" of a state party chairman was illusionary — he heard about it a lot, but never saw any of it personally.

This August, both the Utah Republican and Democratic parties will pick chairmen.

Two-time U.S. House candidate Donald Dunn says he's running for the Democratic top post now held by Meg Holbrook. Holbrook, ending her third, two-year term, hasn't announced if she's running again or retiring, although this week upon hearing Dunn's announcement she sounded a little feisty, like she may want to stick around awhile.

The challenge is a classic new-guard vs. old-guard.

Joe Cannon, GOP chairman, says he's running for a second, two-year term. Cannon is the brother of Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. Joe Cannon is also chairman of Geneva Steel and a Deseret News board member.

It's unclear if some Republican will challenge him. Cannon, as has been the case with other party leaders during the 1990s, has been pestered by an element of unsatisfied party core members.

State party delegates from both parties will vote on chairman and other party officers. Maybe 1,000 Democratic and 1,800 GOP delegates will show up at the Saturday conventions, listen to the speeches and vote.

And for two more years the party chairmen will fund raise, scheme and cajole in an effort to get their parties' candidates elected to public office.


Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com