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News Blog

John Swallow's Nightmare Summer Is Just Beginning

by Bryan Schott
- Posted // 2013-06-06 -

In political scandals, as with everything else in life, it’s all about timing.


And, right now, timing is no friend to Attorney General John Swallow. To put it indelicately, he’s basically screwed as we head into the long, hot summer.

This is not about Swallow’s guilt or innocence. Not at all.

But make no mistake -- John Swallow is in a ton of trouble.

Why?

Because there’s absolutely nothing else that will distract the media.

Let me say that again. There’s nothing on the horizon to distract an industry that is notoriously fickle and prone to chasing whatever shiny thing that comes rolling down the road.

How about an election? We only have the municipal ones coming up, and those won’t get interesting until after Labor Day (if at all).

The Republican State Convention is over. Nobody cares about the Democrats (except for the Democrats). So, there won’t be much reprieve for Swallow there.

Nothing but dust and tumbleweeds on the main street of Utah politics for the next few months. The only thing we have to draw our attention is the latest news about John Swallow and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff.

How can Swallow change the narrative when the scandals swirling around his office are the most interesting thing going on in Utah politics right now?

He can’t.

Maybe, just maybe,  things might shift for Swallow if the Supreme Court strikes down Prop 8 next month and makes same-sex marriage legal across the entire country. The chances of that happening are extremely low.

Reporters will chew on the Swallow story like a cow chewing cud -- and we will savor every little detail that emerges.

Their stories will fuel endless speculation, particularly on social media, about Swallow’s future. It will be an enormous feedback loop, an echo chamber of conjecture that lasts months and months.

In the middle sits John Swallow -- unable to change the subject despite his desperate need to.

How bad will this get? Consider this. Even veteran reporter Chris Vanocur, who was let go by the local ABC affiliate last year, smells a rat and is rooting around the story on his blog.

There is a real-world example that proves informative here. In December of 2002, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott spoke at the 100th birthday of Senator Strom Thurmond and said, “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.”

Those comments when viewed against Thurmond’s Dixiecrat history are startling and controversial ... maybe even racist. Had Lott made them in the middle of a budget fight or something else, they would have been noted and then the media would have moved on.

But Lott’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Congress was on holiday break and the political media had nothing else to cover. His comments played on an endless loop on the cable-news channels, and Lott was eventually forced to step down as Senate Majority Leader.

The Swallow story could easily transform from media event to crusade. It’s dangerously close to that already, with one Republican legislator calling for his ouster and House Speaker Becky Lockhart instructing the membership what will happen if they eventually decide to impeach Swallow.

It’s not hard for something like this to turn into a crusade. Remember HB477? If public outrage continues to build in a similar manner, the media will throw more and more resources and attention at the story, building to a critical mass of negativity that could envelop the entire Capitol.

Even if Swallow were cleared by the feds, there’s enough other stuff there that it’s a story that won’t go away quickly, if at all. If he’s banking on this burning itself out, he’s getting bad advice.

There are not many things that would potentially change the media’s focus. One potential story on the horizon is the petition drive to get rid of Utah’s caucus system. But, if it moves forward, it will still be in the signature-gathering stage this summer. People holding clipboards is booooring! Especially when you have the state’s top law enforcement official taking lumps nearly every day in the media.

Maybe Swallow should get out and start gathering signatures himself. Move the petition process forward. Push that story to the fore so he can take some of the heat off himself.

Because we’re only at the beginning of the summer, and we’re already near the boiling point.

Bryan Schott is managing editor of UtahPolicy.com and UtahPulse.com. He is an award-winning journalist who has covered politics in Utah for more than 15 years. He also blogs at SchottHappens.com.

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