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Opinion: Utah politics awash in resignations, intrigue

The last several days have produced a zesty potpourri of political news. Here’s what it all means

State Rep. Steve Christiansen, R-West Jordan, speaks during a rally.
State Rep. Steve Christiansen, R-West Jordan, speaks during a rally calling for a forensic vote audit at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. Christian abruptly resigned from the Legislature last week.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Pignanelli & Webb: The last several days have produced a zesty potpourri of political news, especially changes in political leadership. Here are people, issues and events spicing up Utah’s political world.

Francis Gibson. “A resignation is a grave act; never performed by a right-minded man without forethought or with reserve.” Salmon P. Chase

The House majority leader announced he would not only retire from the Legislature but resign, effective Nov. 8. That produced a big shock reverberating through insider circles. Gibson was often viewed as the likely next speaker, although rumors circulated that Gibson’s often-brusque style could jeopardize such advancement.

Gibson’s resignation shakes up House GOP leadership. Popular Whip Mike Schultz is likely to replace him. Assistant Whip Val Peterson announced he will continue in his current position. So, the whip race is wide open. Gibson was a very able, talented lawmaker who didn’t tolerate much rebellion against leadership positions. His vacancy will have ripple effects in House culture and leadership style.

Steve Christiansen. This West Jordan lawmaker made national news organizing a rally and conducting a hearing demanding an audit of Utah’s 2020 elections. Legislators allowed his supporters ample time to state their case, but no commitments towards legislation were made. Backlash from across the political spectrum was strong and clear. Christiansen not only resigned his seat at the Legislature, citing threats against his family, but also his employment at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This action by Christiansen sends a clear message that Utah’s political and business establishment is not interested in re-litigating the 2020 elections in Utah, especially with no proof of any fraud.

Redistricting Commission. Established by a 2018 ballot initiative, this independent entity developed maps for federal and state districts after months of deliberation and public input. They formally presented the maps to the Legislature last Monday. Within a few seconds, GOP officials noted the proposed congressional maps would provide an advantage for Democrats in one of the four districts.

The reality is that the Republican Legislature was never going to allow the Redistricting Commission to dictate district boundaries. This is further amplified by the fact that the GOP is just a few seats short of majority in the U.S. House, and they are not going to give a free one to a Democrat. The media and some left-of-center activist groups will complain about the Nov. 9 special session vote that ignores the commission recommendations, but it will be forgotten by the end of the year.

Rob Bishop. The former congressman was an interesting selection for the Redistricting Commission. His very public resignation from the group in October did not change the commission’s recommendations. But Bishop’s arguments and his resignation did provide cover for lawmakers who will likely stipulate that the proportions of rural and urban/suburban population in each of the four congressional districts should be as close to the same as possible.

John Curtis. This moderately conservative congressman from Utah’s 4th District attended the COP26 Climate Summit to discuss solutions to global warming. Curtis organized the Conservative Climate Caucus and has acknowledged that on climate and environmental issues, Republicans have a “branding problem.” He asserts that Republicans care about the environment and climate change, and the GOP should be at the table when environmental and economic commitments are made.

This reflects a growing dynamic in Utah. Residents of all political stripes are concerned about clean air and the changing local climate. Curtis, however, will have difficulty changing public perception of GOP views on environmental issues. But if gas prices continue to rise and the emerging global energy crisis worsens, public opinion on energy and climate may align more with Republican views than with the climate activists.

Public education curriculum. The Virginia gubernatorial election highlighted the potency of education as a political issue and the sensitivity of race and cultural issues in school curriculum. It also confirmed the importance of parents having a role to play in their children’s education.

This dustup is noteworthy as Utah also is engaged in serious discussions over public education curriculum. We think most Utah school boards and teachers strike the right balance and teach these topics respectfully and properly. School leaders also welcome parental involvement. Still, Utah lawmakers are likely to weigh in on these matters in the upcoming legislative session.

President Joseph Biden. The president’s approval ratings continue to drop amid worsening crises. These include perceptions of his handling of the economy, Afghanistan withdrawal, COVID-19, inflation, the border/immigration crisis, and his priority legislation.

Most Utahns did not vote for the president and do not support his agenda. His continued decline in popularity places Utah Democratic candidates in swing districts in political jeopardy, and especially hurts any chance of Democrats winning a congressional race. It’s fair to say Utahns appreciate the president’s demeanor and politeness, compared to Donald Trump, but that alone won’t help Democrats.

GOP National Convention. October also witnessed a real attempt by local operatives to land the 2024 Presidential Nominating Convention in Salt Lake City. The new convention hotel at the Salt Palace will help that cause, but it’s probably a long shot.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.