The House Republicans gathered one week late to discuss handling of Garn's naked hot-tubbing admission.
It's probably the meeting that Republican leaders should have called last Wednesday, before Rep. Kevin Garn admitted on the House floor to hot-tubbing naked with a 15-year-old girl in 1985, and subsequently paying her $150,000. Instead, only a couple of legislative leaders and members of the press knew a little bit about the incident when Garn stood, after adjournment, and admitted/apologized/rationalized his actions.
What followed has become the defining moment of a session in which legislators should really be talking about how they spared schools serious cuts, despite a budget shortfall: A standing ovation from almost the entire House, ostensibly for his service. (For those representatives who want to argue that that they didn't applaud, take it to the people. Because in the public's eye, the entire House applauded, and it will probably take photographic proof to convince them that any individual did not applaud.)
Last night, to quell growing anger with House leaders, the Republican caucus met for two hours behind closed doors to air grievances. None of the Republicans are really talking about what was said, although the caucus did put out a statement after the meeting:
We respect former Representative Garn's decision to resign and believe it was appropriate. While not condoning the action, we wish for closure and healing for Cheryl Maher and the Garn family. We hope the people of Utah understand that members of the Legislature do not condone any illegal, unethical or ill-advised behavior.
Sadly (for the current leaders, especially House Speaker Dave Clark), this thing is not going away. If the backers of the ethics initiative, challengers to incumbents, and those seeking leadership positions don't make the Garn scandal and the ovation a centerpiece of their campaigns, their campaign managers should be fired. I'm not saying it's fair, but I am saying it's smart. And come on, it's politics. If you want to be an elected official, don't hot-tub naked with girls half your age (even before you're elected) and pay them hush money, and don't applaud the person who does hot-tub naked with girls half their age and pays them hush money.
Even more daunting for Republicans is that all Republican officials could easily be linked to this display, as part of a broader disgust among the relatively silent moderates that also includes frustration with the blustering by the arch-conservatives and the continued ethical and moral failings. That includes Gov. Gary Herbert, who may end having to work a lot harder to earn a second half-term because of the actions of another branch of government.
Again, without the Garn incident, legislators and Herbert would be talking about how well they preserved key elements of the budget this year, especially education. That would be enough to make many re-election campaigns easy sailing. But now, they will be talking about issues that have nothing to do with policy and process, and are a lot harder for them to explain.