As Salt Lake County Republicans move into their organizing convention Saturday, the self-described dysfunctional family will, again, be looking for a new leader and some kind of consensus.

Former state Sen. James Evans seems to be the front-runner for the county party chairmanship against first-time office-seeker Patrick Reagan. Current county chairman Tiani Coleman chose not to seek re-election at the convention, which is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. in the South Towne Expo Center.

While Coleman is not running again because of a pending move to Utah County, a biannual change in leadership is not uncommon for the county party; no chairman has served two terms in a decade. Although each of the chairmen had their own reasons for not running again, or lost a re-election bid, the turnover in the top county GOP job is indicative of the seemingly constant county party turmoil.

And losing the county mayor's race and one county council seat last election, combined with Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson's continuing to win 60 percent or more of the county vote, shows a local Republican Party out of sync in Utah's most populous county.

Here are two examples of county Republican Party leadership missteps over the past decade:

In 1998, two loyal conservatives were arrested for trespassing at the Salt Lake County GOP convention when they refused to stop handing out fliers; party bosses said only those who paid a $300 booth fee could distribute materials.

The county executive committee stripped 11 well-known county Republicans, including former GOP County Commissioner Brent Overson, from their party leadership posts after they publicly endorsed Democrat Randy Horiuchi's 2002 candidacy for the Salt Lake County Council.

Those and other incidents left the then-chairmen explaining their actions and under fire.

With accusations of ethical lapses being fired from the fringes of the party at the current leadership — especially from Mike Ridgway, who has recently been removed from the party's central committee but is running Saturday for county party secretary — it is doubtful that either Evans, who said he is supported by "party insiders," or the Ridgway-supported Reagan will be able to avoid conflicts in the coming two years.

For his part, Evans credits the large, active membership of the county party for the continuing disputes and said they are the type of things which actually make the GOP the more open party. By contrast, Democrats lack the divergent viewpoints and tend to be run in a more "socialist" manner, he said.

"In our party, we have a true democracy," Evans said. "It's messy, but that's how democracy works."

Evans, who won an upset victory in Senate District 1 in 2002, only to see the traditionally Democratic Salt Lake City west-side seat go back to the minority party in 2004, says he has big plans to reorganize and re-energize the county party. However, not wanting to tip his hand to Democrats, he refuses to publicly identify those plans and only hints at making the party "a more integral part" of races.

As for the accusations of ethical problems within party leadership and among its elected officials, Evans calls them "erroneous." Those problems were highlighted last year by the county government scandals that ensnared two elected Republicans, Mayor Nancy Workman and Auditor Craig Sorenson. Workman quit the mayor's race but was later acquitted. Sorenson resigned and pleaded guilty to misusing a county credit card.

"Our party leaders are not unethical," Evans said.

Still, in Saturday's county convention, a resolution has been introduced by delegate John Marks Sr. requesting the following language be placed in the county party platform: "A principle of this party shall be ethical behavior. Every effort shall be taken to ensure there is never an act of perception of unethical behavior by any member."

Reagan points to those "ethical collapses" as one of the primary reasons for last year's losses in Salt Lake County. The biggest problem, however, is not the "isolated incidences" as much as a general consolidation of power, he said.

"Insiders endorse insiders, and it becomes self-perpetuating," Reagan said. "Then the power only rests with a few, and power breeds corruption."

Reagan said the party needs to spend more time focusing on its core platform and make sure the candidates that run under the Republican banner also embrace that platform. Instead, party leaders have spent their efforts in trying to win the races, even if it goes against those core values, he said.

"The county platform expresses what we think the limitations on government should be," he said. As opposed to making decisions among a handful of party leaders, the decisions should be made by all of the party members because "the rights are held by the people, they are God-given rights."

Whatever the case, Republicans need to right their ship in Salt Lake County if they want to retain the kind of power they hold in the rest of the state. It is enough of a concern that state leaders have sometimes stepped into county affairs, most notably when former state executive director Chris Bleak left his job, with the state party's blessing, to run Workman's embattled campaign last summer before Workman finally got out of the race.

State party chairman Joe Cannon, who is also a member of the Deseret Morning News board of directors, said that Salt Lake "is the battleground county" in the state and is vital if the GOP plans to continue its dominance. At the same time, there is only so much the state party, with only a half-dozen employees, can effectively do, especially on the more local races for county government.

Along with the inner-party battles, Cannon said that the "county issues" had a significant impact on county and legislative races in 2004. If anything, they proved that winning in Salt Lake County for Republicans, unlike many other parts of the state, requires more than just an "R" on the ballot.

"It takes the full complement of tools," Cannon said. "A big part of that is a strong, vibrant county party."

One thing that does need to happen, Cannon said, is for both the county and state party to stop devoting an unnecessary energy to "a small group of dissidents." While minority groups within the party can cause a ruckus at conventions by a savvy use of the rules, outside of the convention halls the party should primarily focus its time on organizing campaigns and recruiting volunteers.

While more county residents still identify with the Republican Party than any other political group, as polls by Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV pollster Dan Jones & Associates show, Republicans aren't a majority in the county.

In 1995, 40 percent of county residents told Jones they were Republicans. Democrats made up 23 percent, and 31 percent were independents. Similar numbers were in a survey completed last month, when 39 percent said they are Republicans, 26 percent said they are Democrats and 27 percent said they are political independents.

But recently, county voters have been more than willing to pick a Democrat in one race, a Republican in another. Split-ticket balloting is a way of life for many county Republicans, which leads to distressing numbers for GOP leaders in races that they dominate elsewhere in the state:

While losing the 2004 governor's race to GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Democrat Scott Matheson Jr. actually won Salt Lake County. Scott Matheson outpolled Huntsman by 19,000 votes in the county, winning 52-46 percent. Huntsman, of course, crushed Matheson in other counties, winning the seat.

Matheson's little brother, U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, won in Salt Lake County last year by even a bigger margin than he did in 2002. Rep. Matheson defeated Republican challenger John Swallow by more than 66,000 votes (2-to-1) in the county, 65-32 percent.

Rep. Matheson's district runs along the east bench of the county, one of the most Republican areas in the county.

Democrat Peter Corroon won the county mayor's race last year by 21,000 votes, carrying a three-way race with 49 percent of the vote.

Republicans lost a seat on the County Council, with Democrat Jenny Wilson defeating at-large incumbent GOP Councilman Steve Harmsen by 14,000 votes, 50.8 percent to 46.8 percent.

If Republicans lose one more seat on the County Council in 2006, they lose control of the council and Democrats will rule in Salt Lake County for the first time in a decade.

It's those county races — as well as a handful of legislative contests — that county Republicans must hold, party leaders say.

Thirty of the 75 state House seats are in Salt Lake County. Democrats and Republicans split those, 15-15.

Twelve of the 29 state Senate seats are based in the county. (Several districts poke into surrounding counties.) Democrats hold seven of those 12 seats; Democrats hold only one non-Salt Lake County seat in the Senate.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com; jloftin@desnews.com