Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Post Election Primer

Richfield, Sevier County, Utah --

Perhaps the real story to be told on this page is how a democrat running for county commissioner in central, rural, red state Utah was able to garner 43% of the vote and nearly defeat the Republican nominee in the midst of tea party prominence. This is a post-election night tale of intrigue and suspense, with some of the cast of characters still unidentified and retreating into the post-election shadows.

Monte Turner, a democrat who secured 2498 votes of the total 5805 cast in the "B" seat commissioner race, is a self-described, soil conservationist working for the federal government in Sevier County. Turner (not to be confused with the Constitution candidate, Scott Turner, who ran for the same office) had disavowed any affiliation with mainstream democratic party leaders, and had sent mixed signals during his campaign that confused some people and incensed others in this central Utah county of just over 20,000 people. During the campaign, when asked why he hadn't registered as an independent candidate, he cited his last-minute filing on a Friday afternoon, and election requirements that would have had him furnish 150 signatures to do so as an independent candidate. He also seemed to dismiss the primary process by attempting to confuse party delegate approval with the primary election, stating "I didn't want 200 people determining if I could run or not."

That didn't confuse republican party organizers involved in the Sevier County election.

Speculation within some circles seemed to point to some irrational fear by the county's de facto ruling class that their lifestyles would be upended if the actual republican candidate were to prevail. Garth "Tooter" Ogden, a lifelong resident, dairyman and entrepreneur was able to hurdle past a Republican primary challenger who was a major player in Richfield City's economic development effort. At that point, the race really began.

Mid-campaign the dynamics were interesting and convoluted. The "A" seat commissioner race mainly involved fourth-term republican candidate Gary Mason, who had championed a coal-fired power plant as the county's chief economic development plan earlier in his political career. Mason's challenger was a woman who had organized a successful grassroots effort in opposition to the power plant proposal, Sevier County's "Proposition 1" which went on the November 2008 ballot after one of the swiftest decisions in the history of the Utah Supreme Court. That ruling struck down statute that would have disallowed the referendum, and on the wake of that referendum victory, Elaine Bonavita took her place on the ballot as a Constitution Party nominee, thus averting a primary challenge. Her greatest contribution would be to get some of the campaign controversies out into the daylight for the first time.

The final part of the campaign trail would prove to be a web of intrigue.

On Sunday, August 22nd, the Salt Lake Tribune published a story referring to an objection raised by Bonavita when she was officially denied the ability to campaign and distribute literature at the Sevier County Fair. Mason (her opponent and incumbant commissioner at that time) was there, giving away free hamburgers (allegedly paid for with county funds), to the public. Sheryl Allen was also present, campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Peter Coroon and was unchallenged in her efforts.

A mailing, from republican Mason and his influential, "insider" supporters, went out in the last weeks of the campaign which endorsed the democrat, Monte Turner. At that time, the bare-knuckle, retail politicking was in full swing. In the end, it proved to be too little, too late for the democrat Turner who was never able to overcome a sizeable lead by Ogden, manifest early when the returns began coming in. Poll watchers were left wondering about those involved with the pseudo-democrat's last-minute campaign, and speculation still exists that many whose livelihoods are built on political patronage were the first to jump in against the republican Ogden and for the career bureaucrat, Monte Turner.

Ogden secured 51% of the final vote with the Constitution candidate as an also-ran with only 5% (the last fact prompted Ogden's supporters to note that even if Scott Turner's votes had gone to the democrat Monte Turner, it still wouldn't have been enough, thereby negating any "spoiler" claims).

With warnings from Ogden's senior campaign volunteers that he would be told what would be expected of him as the "junior commissioner," Ogden attended meetings with Mason on the Wednesday following the election. Ogden confirmed the informal and private effort was underway to have him understand how the county commission really worked and what would be expected of him as the newest member of the three seat commission. (Ogden will replace stockman, school board member and former water commissioner Ivan Cowley who was denied a re-election bid during the republican primary nomination, like Utah's senior Senator Bob Bennett).

In a county where median household income hovers at the poverty level, public works projects look to preliminary Community Impact Block Grant funding efforts, recently finalized under Mason's signature on October 27. Others wonder about the last-ditch participation of those players surrounding the offices of the Six County Association of Governments, whose director (Russ Cowley) is a major power player in central Utah but is not elected and accountable to very few.

Political observers assembled in Salt Lake City who were dissecting the win in Utah's second congressional district (by Jim Matheson, a blue-dog democrat in a strenuous re-election effort) recognized that party affiliation is not the end-all, be-all in Utah, red-state politics. At the studios of the University of Utah's KUER, it was observed that the candidate's personality and experience, that of the candidate's opponent, effective campaign messaging and the political climate at the time of the election are the most potent factors in a Utah election. Matheson was re-elected as the renegade democrat in red-state Utah, but unlike Sevier County's Monte Turner, has always been and has worked with fellow democrats since his first election to congress in 2000. Even with opponent republican Morgan Philpot's signage showing up in ultra-red Richfield, (which is not in Matheson's second district, but rather in Jason Chaffetz' third district) the political chicanery was left to those in Sevier County who understand how public policy really works, (or doesn't, in the case of the doomed power plant issue).

Thus it was in this little rural valley surrounded by mountains, which may yet be destined to become a major transportation hub at the intersection of Interstate 15 and Interstate 70.

Depending on the politics, of course.

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