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Frank R. Pignanelli and LaVarr Webb: Special election squabbles and Dem congressional losses

Gary Herbert Utah Economic Summit 2016.
Gary Herbert Utah Economic Summit 2016.
Governor's Office of Economic Development

Utah’s Republican Legislature and Utah’s Republican governor have been squabbling over procedures and legal questions regarding the special election now underway to replace Congressman Jason Chaffetz. We explore the ramifications, along with the fallout over the Republican win in the Georgia special election (the most expensive House race in history).

Did the governor overstep his authority by moving ahead with the special election without calling a special session, and by asking the attorney general not to release a formal opinion (sought by the Legislature) on the matter?

Pignanelli: "There is no separation of powers where the lawyers are concerned. There is only a concentration of all government power — in the lawyers." — Fred Rodell

Warning: These important issues, when brought up in conversations, can cause brain paralysis and fatal symptoms of extreme boredom among sane human beings. Other than weird political types (like me), no one cares — or wants to — about this insider baseball. So, why is there fuss on Capitol Hill?

The special election controversy is opening up old nasty wounds. Who does the attorney general answer to: the chief executive of the state, the legislative body that authorizes his/her budget, the people who elected him/her? Also, the Legislature provides statutory details on other matters of electioneering. Special elections should be included.

As a former lawmaker, I believe the Legislature has the authority and obligation to be engaged in all election matters. Further, legislators have a right to the attorney general’s legal opinion. Until modified by constitutional amendment, they have a client relationship with this state officer. Current legislative frustration is a rationale response.

Unless readers are anxious to end a dismal episode of small talk, they are advised to avoid these topics in polite company.

Webb: Most citizens aren’t interested in this abstruse quarrel. They just want a fair special election — which is what they’re getting.

Amid all the rhetoric, one thing is clear: Had the governor not quickly put the special election wheels in motion, it is highly likely that the 3rd District GOP nominee would have been selected exclusively by a relatively few state delegates. Party voters would have been shut out of the primary election, and Utah’s next member of Congress would be far-right activist Chris Herrod, who won the convention vote.

Thanks to the governor’s action (and also thanks to SB54/Count My Vote), primary voters will have a choice — Herrod, Provo Mayor John Curtis, or businessman Tanner Ainge.

The matter of the legal opinion is tricky. How can the attorney general represent both the governor and the Legislature when they are at odds? How would you like your law firm to issue an opinion on behalf of another client who is threatening to sue you? The attorney general has to decide who he represents to avoid a serious conflict of interest.

Will this episode seriously damage the legislative/gubernatorial relationship?

Pignanelli: “Separation of powers” issues are more structural than ideological, and difficult to personalize. Emotions will dissipate over time. But before scar tissue covers everything, the Legislature should send to voters a constitutional amendment proposition providing their government branch the authority to call a special session. This will allow needed responses to a host of technology, taxation and budgetary matters that arise outside general sessions. Utah citizens would support such a rational adjustment to the Constitution

Webb: Tension between the two branches of government is natural, and this is by no means a constitutional crisis. Both sides should jealously guard the prerogatives of their branch of government, and that’s what they’re doing. In the next session, the Legislature should establish policies for special congressional elections. Some feelings are a little raw, but this will blow over.

Despite the unpopularity of President Trump and dysfunction in Republican-controlled Washington, Democrats lost in Georgia and South Carolina last week, giving them a 0-4 record in congressional special elections. Are Democratic hopes of re-gaining power evaporating?

(Pignanelli) Special elections are rarely an indicator of results in the next general election. But they present snapshots of current political dynamics. Democrats better learn fast they are not automatic credible alternatives to Republicans and independents who distrust Trump. The GOP is grasping it was correct to pour resources into red districts to prevent hemorrhaging of moderate Republicans who dislike the president. The party that learns the most this summer will benefit in 2018.

Webb: Democrats (and the national media) have been obsessed with Trump and his foibles, while celebrating the enthusiasm of the left-wing Democratic base. But they haven’t paid attention to the fact that Democrats have no compelling agenda of their own except to hate Trump.

Democrats forget that the country has been moving to the right for several election cycles (Dems have lost hundreds of legislative, congressional and gubernatorial seats), and “we hate Trump” is not an agenda that will reverse the trend.

Democrats give Republicans a big gift by interpreting recent defeats as evidence that a more radical (Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren) brand of opposition is needed. Becoming a Socialist Party-lite will accelerate their long-term drift into political irrelevance. Sanders and Nancy Pelosi as party emblems don’t inspire heartland voters.

The real tragedy is that Republicans could be taking much better advantage of Democratic confusion to pass an aggressive conservative agenda — if only Trump would keep his mouth (and Twitter feed) shut, focus on responsible governance, and stop sidelining his pro-growth agenda with silly sideshows. The GOP could be enjoying victories.

Remember that the 2018 election is a long way off. Trump and the Republicans are fully capable of squandering their opportunity.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is the president/CEO of the Special Olympics of Utah. Email: frankp@xmission.com.