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Republican Sean Reyes elected to fill final two years of John Swallow's term in attorney general's office

SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly a year after John Swallow resigned under a cloud of suspicion, Utah again has an elected attorney general.

Republican Sean Reyes had no problem holding on to the job the governor handed him last December, with an easy win Tuesday over Democrat Charles Stormont.

Reyes won the right to fill the remaining two years on Swallow's term and faces election again in 2016. Gov. Gary Herbert named Reyes to replace Swallow, who along with his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff, now faces felony public corruption charges.

"It is special in many ways," Reyes said after his victory. "Special in terms of winning tonight, I get to serve two years of my predecessor's term. Then in 2016, when we run again, we'll have four years after that."

Meantime, the man who launched the state investigation that led to the criminal charges against Swallow and Shurtleff also appeared to be holding on to his office Tuesday.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill beat Republican challenger Steve Nelson, who had endorsements from police, firefighter and public employee unions. Nelson works as the violent crimes prosecution unit chief in Gill's office.

Gill acknowledged that many people challenged his candidacy, but said that's what democracy is all about. He said he set out four years ago to confront crime without regard to race, religion, sexual orientation or economic status.

"This is what justice is about. This is what fairness is about. This is what equality is about," he said as someone in the crowd shouted, "Goodbye, Swallow. Goodbye, Shurtleff."

Also in Salt Lake County, Democratic Sheriff Jim Winder won a third term with a victory over Republican Jake Petersen, a 15-year veteran with the Unified Police Department.

"This has been a difficult race in a lot of ways," Winder said, adding police have taken hits in the community, many of which are unfounded. "In law enforcement, you have to hold up personal ethics. I am convinced we have done that."

While Democrats maintained control of the top law enforcement offices in Salt Lake County, they couldn't wrest the attorney general's office from the GOP. With the accusations that enveloped Swallow and Shurtleff, Democrats were optimistic about grabbing the office for the first time since 1996.

But Stormont couldn't build much momentum despite raising more money than past Democratic challengers. A first-time candidate, he had no name recognition going into the race. He campaigned on reforming the ethics in the office and not "wasting resources fighting against people's rights."

Reyes ran a low-key campaign, saying he preferred to let his work in the office speak for him. He and Stormont debated only once.

Wearing a kukui nut lei, Reyes accepted congratulations from a steady stream of well-wishers after his victory speech Tuesday.

"I think it reflects the people's trust that we've started to win back, and the hard work that we've put in," Reyes said, with employees of the office and its state clients as well as the public. "I think that helped. Maybe we could have spent more time campaigning, but I felt it was more important to send a message to the people that we are on the job."

Stormont returns to work Wednesday as an assistant attorney general, representing the Utah Department of Transportation in eminent domain cases. He took an unpaid leave of absence — per state law — to run against his boss.

"I hope you don’t think I'm going away. I hope you don’t think I won't be in (Reyes') ear talking real reform," Stormont said in conceding the election.

Reyes' first order of business after taking over for Swallow was dealing with fallout from the alleged wrongdoing of his two Republican predecessors.

He said he has worked hard to restore public trust in the office. He replaced most of the top managers, conducted audits and investigations into prior administrations, and created a new ethics committee.

Meantime, Reyes said his top priority is to protect families, particularly children, from violent crime and drugs. He said he's also taking aim at white-collar crime and fraud that hurts businesses and consumers.

Reyes found himself in the fire within weeks of taking office when a federal judge overturned Utah's ban on gay marriage last December. He defended the law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately declined to hear the case and let stand lower court rulings that legalized same-sex marriage in the state.

Immediately after the decision, he advised state agencies to follow the law.

Reyes continues to appeal a federal ruling that struck down the section of Utah's bigamy law that forbids polygamous cohabitation.

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy