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Derek Brown election as Utah GOP chairman marks ‘new beginning’ for party, governor says

SHARE Derek Brown election as Utah GOP chairman marks ‘new beginning’ for party, governor says

OREM — Former state lawmaker Derek Brown's easy win Saturday in the race to lead the Utah Republican Party was hailed by Gov. Gary Herbert as a "new beginning" for a party split by years of infighting over a controversial election law.

The governor told reporters the party now needs to stay out of efforts to change the law still known as SB54 that creates a signature-gathering alternative to the party's traditional caucus and convention system for nominating candidates.

"Let's not say, 'I'm more pure than you're pure. You're not really a true Republican and I am.' That stuff has got to be over inside the party," he said. "This is a new beginning, a new opportunity, for us to unite and stand together as Republicans."

Chadwick H. Fairbanks III speaks during the Utah Republican Party convention at the Utah Valley University UCCU Center in Orem on Saturday, May 4, 2019. Fairbanks ran for the position of party chairman.

Chadwick H. Fairbanks III speaks during the Utah Republican Party convention at the Utah Valley University UCCU Center in Orem on Saturday, May 4, 2019. Fairbanks ran for the position of party chairman.

Silas Walker, Deseret News

Brown, who has served as Sen. Mike Lee's deputy chief of staff, was elected state Republican Party chairman with the support of more than 62 percent of the more than 2,300 delegates attending the convention held at Utah Valley University.

The new chairman said delegates made a "decision not to look backwards but to look forward in the future," by choosing him over three other candidates including Phill Wright, a leader of the faction of the GOP behind the battle over SB54.

"The SB54 fight is over because the Supreme Court has decided not to take it," Brown told reporters after his first-round victory. "The Legislature can do what they want to do, but as a party, we're going to look forward."

Wright, who ended up with about a third of the vote, a second-place finish ahead of Chadwick H. Fairbanks III and Sylvia Miera-Fisk, said he felt like he heard more support in the college arena.

Sylvia Miera-Fisk speaks during the Utah Republican Party convention at the Utah Valley University UCCU Center in Orem on Saturday, May 4, 2019. Miera-Fisk ran for the position of party chairwoman.

Sylvia Miera-Fisk speaks during the Utah Republican Party convention at the Utah Valley University UCCU Center in Orem on Saturday, May 4, 2019. Miera-Fisk ran for the position of party chairwoman.

Silas Walker, Deseret News

"It is what it is," Wright said. "I'm a Republican. I'll support our chair."

Brown said in his speech to delegates he wasn't aligned with either side of the election law debate but is "the win elections guy. I'm the put Republicans in office guy," promising to maintain Utah's status as a reliably red state.

Wright told delegates "winning elections isn't just about winning elections. It's about making sure we elect candidates that have the same principles and values that we do."

Before the convention started, Brown and Wright campaigned at booths set up just outside the hall. While both candidates attracted supporters, Brown drew a much bigger crowd, including a number of elected officials.

Earlier in the week, Lee endorsed Brown as having the skills needed to "give the Utah GOP a fresh start." So did Sen. Mitt Romney, who did not attend Saturday's convention because of a family commitment out of state.

Phill Wright speaks during the Utah Republican Party convention at the Utah Valley University UCCU Center in Orem on Saturday, May 4, 2019. Wright ran for the position of party chairman.

Phill Wright speaks during the Utah Republican Party convention at the Utah Valley University UCCU Center in Orem on Saturday, May 4, 2019. Wright ran for the position of party chairman.

Silas Walker, Deseret News

The governor, who paid for the more than $18,000 electronic voting system used at the convention out of his political action committee funds, had also encouraged Brown to get in the race.

Brown had briefly considered running for party chairman two years ago, when Wright lost to Rob Anderson. The now-former chairman campaigned on ending the SB54 fight, blamed for a debt that currently adds up to about $100,000.

As a member of the party's State Central Committee, Wright sparred with Anderson repeatedly over continuing the legal battle. His boss, Entrada CEO Dave Bateman, has picked up the legal cost.

But financial support for the state's dominant party slowed after the Utah GOP sued the state over SB54, which created an alternative path to the primary election ballot by allowing candidates to gather voter signatures.

The bill was passed in 2014 by the GOP-controlled Legislature as a compromise with supporters of the Count My Vote initiative that would have replaced the caucus and convention system with a direct primary.

The state won legal challenges to the law in federal district court in Salt Lake and in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the case earlier this year.

Anderson, who chose not to seek a second term, told delegates the convention was paid for thanks to contributions by the governor and others. The price tag for the event was about $20,000.

The governor said the "clean sweep" of party offices, which included replacing now-former Utah GOP Secretary Lisa Shepherd with Kendra Seeley, means the financial situation should improve.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee speaks during the Utah Republican Party convention, endorsing Derek Brown for the party chairman position at the Utah Valley University UCCU Center in Orem on Saturday, May 4, 2019.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee speaks during the Utah Republican Party convention, endorsing Derek Brown for the party chairman position at the Utah Valley University UCCU Center in Orem on Saturday, May 4, 2019.

Silas Walker, Deseret News

"It takes you a while to get into the hole, it takes you a while to get out of the hole," he said. "Those who have said, 'You know what, I'm going to sit on the sidelines,' I hope they will take a new, fresh look at the party and say it's time to re-engage."

Anderson said the message the convention results send to donors is positive enough that the party's debt could be retired in the next month or so. He said unlike when he took office, rent and utility payments are current.

GOP delegates gathered in the university's arena moved relatively quickly through the convention agenda, deciding not to take action on a long list of proposed bylaw changes and resolutions, including a call to repeal a new hate crimes law.

Speeches by elected officials largely focused on uniting against an increased interest in socialism and Democratic candidates in next year's elections, and the convention ended in less than four hours.

The usual sparring over procedural issues was kept to a minimum. State Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the sponsor of SB54, presided over the convention until voting for party offices began.

The governor said delegates, which included the first lady, don't want the divisiveness of past conventions.

"They want to be able to work together with people, with respect and civility," Herbert said. "I think you saw an uprising here today that said, 'We don't have to have this elongated debate on silly issues."

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated SB54 was passed by the Legislature in 2015. It passed in 2014.