The Conservative Agenda | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

The Conservative Agenda 

God-fearing, tech-savvy Republicans shake up the old guard and energize the base.

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Like so many people now, Paul Mero is trying to figure out just what all this social networking means. You know, what it means personally, politically and, most importantly, culturally.

After all, if you’re about changing the culture of Utah, you’ll want to have all the tools it takes. And the Sutherland Institute, the iconic conservative think tank that Mero directs, does indeed want to change the culture. “Culture drives the law,” says Mero. So, if you want the laws to reflect conservative values, you have to make sure those values are embedded in the culture.

Utah’s far right hopes a new self-avowed conservative governor—Gary Herbert—will bring them back to basic values—the fundamentals of God, country and a fundamentalist morality.

But what the conservative agenda is and who gets to claim it is one of the big questions facing Utahns now. And even more important to conservatives—a brewing amalgam of factions, each hoping to bubble to the top—is whether the traditional Utah Republican agenda really reflects their values.

As if Utah Republicans need to worry. A Gallup Poll survey from 2008, released in January this year, ranked Utah as the most Republican state in the nation, with Democrats having a negative 23 point-advantage. Negative. No surprises here. Even in the year of Barack Obama.

“That means Democrats are in the hole from the getgo,” says Pat Jones, of public-opinion firm Dan Jones & Associates and Democratic state Senate Minority Leader.

“You have to get Republican votes to win.”

But even in the negative, Democrats and liberals have made some small strides in the cultural arena—specifically in urban areas. To an ideological conservative, those changes are a bit like a virus waiting to become a pandemic.

So, it’s no wonder that earlier this year, Mero took delight in turning the tables on a little group called Utahns for Marriage Equality, which tried to stifle a Sutherland effort to muddy the message from gay-rights group Equality Utah. If it sounds like a double-negative movement, it was indeed a movement against a movement against an initiative.

Equality Utah had launched what it called the Common Ground Initiative to address issues brought up by the LDS Church last year in the aftermath of California’s Proposition 8. When some church leaders proclaimed they weren’t anti-gay and did not oppose civil unions, Common Ground emerged to talk about health care, fair housing and other legal hurdles for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community.

Sutherland Institute and the Eagle Forum decided to sponsor a counter-initiative called “Sacred Ground,” to kick off at Thanksgiving Point, in defense of what they believe is traditional marriage.

“Utahns for Marriage Equality wanted to step up to plate and make a response,” says Equality board member Michael Mueller. “We organized a group of people down there at the entrance, with signs and banners and had a rally protesting that event.”

Mueller created a Facebook group called “Protest and Infiltration of Sacred Ground Initiative Launch,” thinking he could stack the deck. “We were trying to take back the news coverage of our event,” Mueller says.

But Sutherland was a step ahead of them. The term “infiltrate” on Facebook got their attention. “Facebook helped us in dealing with the protesters,” says Mero. “All we did was sign up; we got all their names, and then turned them away at the door.

That was kind of an aha! moment for the Facebook crowd, but probably doesn’t signify too much for conservatives. They’ve long been exploring cyberspace, although Mero says they’re still not sure what it all means. The LDS Church, for example, lists 44 social networking sites on its Website, but few would say that the church’s clout rests in its virtual evangelism. REAL PEOPLE, REAL FAMILIES
Politicians, who normally spend huge amounts on advertising, are hoping that social networking means something big, mainly because it’s free. In a study of opposite effects, both Democratic President Barack Obama and Utah’s 3rd District Republican, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, used and benefited from social networking.

“We won because we had the right message and did a better job of communicating it,” says Chaffetz, a freshman congressman who manages to make headlines with his outsider style. Chaffetz says his success comes from standing up for principles and communicating them.

“Should Republicans be Democrat-light or should they go to so-called right?” he asks. “I think I did a much better job of using the tools of communication and engaging masses of people. Traditionally, it was big name plus big dollars equals big victory. We changed that equation.”

Yes, he did, and by winning he also transformed the dialogue around the immigration issue in Utah. Ousting Rep. Chris Cannon, who had been in favor of a guest-worker program, Chaffetz made waves advocating holding camps for illegal immigrants.

But neither position represents real conservative values, insists Mero, who lives in the tension between conservative intellectualism and conservative politics. He has experienced tension firsthand after being called on the carpet by legislative leadership last year. “I was called to the Hill several times and chastised for our position,” he says.

That was after Sutherland issued a formal statement—something they don’t do very often—on illegal immigration, and it wasn’t exactly what the GOP was expecting. Not by a long shot.

“We draw a distinction between the illegalities surrounding the broad experience of well-meaning and otherwise lawabiding people who have violated federal immigration laws and malicious criminals intent on harming our citizens,” the statement reads. “Violation of these laws is a public transgression, not a moral sin.” The statement says Utahns “should welcome all people of good will to our state, that Utah officials “should not serve as proxy law enforcement officials for the federal government,” and even that “we should encourage our neighbors in violation of federal immigration laws to become thoroughly assimilated, literate and productive members of our community.”

In other words, Sutherland emphasized the “real people, real families” side of the issue, calling for compassion and understanding. The institute also offered up a study in which they showed side-by-side how “non-citizen Hispanics” compared to “adult citizens.” Hispanics worked more hours for less money and more often in the construction industry than did “citizens.”

“Our legislators fell into the what-don’tyou-understand-about-the-word-illegal argument … and we tried to help them understand all the layers,” Mero says.

The traditional far right in Utah didn’t buy it. “Americans are losing their jobs, the economy is weak; why are we going out of our way to make jobs for people who aren’t citizens of the United States?” asks Don Guymon of Utah Grassroots. Grassroots, a kind of back-to-basics Republican watchdog group based in Bountiful, has been putting out a legislative report card since 1992, although its influence has been spotty.

Mero’s immigration report ran against the political tide and was not an easy sell, even to the members of Sutherland’s board. Mero spent months educating the board about the “correct” understanding of human nature and the “correct” view of human experience. “In politics, it starts to be a relative thing; not in philosophy,” he says.

For sure, Mero is not a gray-area kind of guy. While he’s a graduate of Brigham Young University, Mero wasn’t sure he wanted to actually live in Utah. It was that cultural relativism thing, apparently. The father of six children, he and his wife have home-schooled each one, not even allowing them to participate in church schooling. He gave in to let his boys play basketball at a local school, but he wasn’t particularly happy about that, either.

From 1987 to 1997, he worked for Congress serving, of course, conservative representatives. He co-authored The Natural Family: A Manifesto, a book that set him up as a key adversary to the gay marriage movement.

Despite Mero’s precision view of conservatism and the natural family, he was stunned by the immigration disconnect with the largely Republican Legislature. It was cause for great introspection at Sutherland. How could this happen among the choir? What could they do to bring everyone back to center?

“We decided strategically to turn our attention to the broader public from here on out,” says Mero. That meant conducting cottage meetings for people they know as their friends, talking to them, explaining how they go about things, and generally spreading the Good Word.

Sutherland’s governing principles are no simple knock-off of the Republican Party Platform, although there are obvious similarities. Sutherland focuses on reducing the size and scope of government, protecting and defending the (natural) family in Utah, and preserving the integrity of public institutions—something Mero calls “reducing cynicism.”

The Republican Platform, in contrast, rambles for three pages about the proper role of government, private property, states’ rights, ethics, national security, self-defense (aka gun rights), the right to religious expression, family values, the right to life, and so on. Sutherland’s public-institution piece has actually brought the institute into partnership with otherwise liberal elements.

The quest for an ethics commission, for instance, had him holding hands with now-retired Rep. Roz McGee, D-Salt Lake City. While the two had very different ideas of how the commission should be formed, they nonetheless agreed that it was vital.

Huntsman is masterful as a politician and knows when to shut his mouth, Mero says. But he suffers the “sin of omission,” which reflects on his integrity. “Politics cherishes winning, not integrity,” Mero says.

Mero opposes the idea of an independent commission, saying it politicizes everything. Rather than legislate, he wants to help each legislator understand his or her personal accountability to the public. “It’s to reduce the perception of cynicism,” he says. Ethics laws are important to gain the public trust, not to stop criminal activity, he says.

Utah may be the most politically conservative state in the nation, but philosophically, Mero says, it’s more of a “gut” conservatism—something formed by the rural, LDS heritage in the state and not really by conservative principles.

Mero sees Herbert as an uncomplicated although untested man, and that lack of complexity lends itself to conservatism. Principled in his beliefs, Herbert understands the proper role of government, Mero says.

Mero’s not as understanding of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., lately the conservatives’ target of choice. “Jon Huntsman was elected as a conservative,” notes Mero. “He supported school choice in convention to get the nomination, he never said one word about gay rights, he supported Amendment 3, he never talked about global warming and yet hooked us into the Western Climate Initiative, and he never said his economic theory rested on the idea that we ought to make more Hollywood movies in Utah.”

It’s this unwavering commitment to principle that seems almost inhuman to moderates, but is the hallmark of Utah’s disenfranchised conservatives. WELCOME BACK, CONSERVATIVES

“I … plan to welcome back into our party the voices of our true and hardworking conservatives who have too often been shunned for their conviction to principles and ideologies and for their fight against usurpation of power by rule and personal agenda.” That statement came from a letter to supporters from Morgan Philpot, a former legislator seeking the vice chairmanship of the state GOP.

“Looking forward to finishing the garden this weekend before total campaign madness begins,” his Twitter begins. And ends. That’s the way it is with Tweets—short and sweet.

In some respects, Philpot is an unlikely conservative. He talks about himself as a poor boy from the logging town of Molalla, Ore. He grew up with six brothers and two sisters. When he was 9, his father left his mother with kids to raise, and the family got to know welfare firsthand.

“Do I have liberal tendencies? I understand the need people have for public welfare,” says Philpot. “Without public education, I wouldn’t have an education. And yet, I send my kids to private school. I wish everyone had more choice.”

Philpot, in fact, sponsored the first and only voucher law to be enacted in Utah—the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship for children with autism.

After attending Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) where he met his wife, Philpot came to Utah to study at the University of Utah. While he was interested in political science, he wanted more, and threw in environmental studies and anthropology.

Then in the late 1990s, he went to Washington, D.C., to do a White House internship during the Clinton administration. “After I left the White House, I just knew I wanted to be active in politics,” he says.

How you do that in Utah is to participate in mass meetings. Utah’s in the minority of states that use a party caucus or “mass meeting” system instead of a primary election to choose candidates. Touted as the ultimate in democracy, these neighborhood caucuses actually draw few people who then elect delegates to attend party conventions where candidates are nominated.Since Philpot and his wife were the only ones at his caucus, they each elected the other as delegate.

In 2000, he considered a run against then-2nd District Congressman Merrill Cook, but chose to run for the Legislature instead when then-Speaker of the House Mel Brown resigned. “Everybody just thought for sure that district would go Democratic and I would lose; it was a great and trying experience because no one seemed to want to help me out.” And, of course, there was the money thing. He didn’t have it.

That forced Philpot into a grass-roots campaign in which he finally did get help from one well-known conservative, Marty Stephens, who’d taken Brown’s place on the Hill. When he won the District 45 seat, he took with him the shoe-leather approach.

“Campaigns and politics are best driven by the people,” Philpot says. “Campaigns are so money-driven, so prestige-driven, that people feel totally disenfranchised.” That outcast feeling is one of the hallmarks of Utah’s socalled constitutional conservatives.

It’s what started the Republican Assembly here in the 1990s, and what seemed to resurrect it last year. It’s what started the Patrick Henry Caucus recently, too, with a focus on “states’ rights.” And it’s what powered Chaffetz into national office.

It’s the “concept of norms,” says Philpot. “When a large group of people accept a norm, they function better together. The Constitution functions as that norm. I believe it was a divinely inspired document.”

Philpot is among the “newcomer right” that’s never really been comfortable with the classification of conservative. “I’m far more a constitutional American and a Republican than anything else. At the same time, I have a great appreciation for the environment.” And he saw both sides of it. Philpot watched thriving logging towns waste away while, according to the logging industry, the spotted owl thrived. He also watched an aggressive and environmentally questionable oil and plastics industry step in to replace lumber.
Philpot left the state from 2004-07 for law school, and is now in-house counsel to Reagan Outdoor Advertising, the politically influential billboard company. Philpot has his eyes on the vice chairmanship of the Utah Republican Party. [Philpot won this race June 13, see sidebar “Get the Party Started.”] No, not the chairmanship. He’s not interested in being the face of the party, but rather the soul.

That’s the claim that Chaffetz makes. “When Republicans have erred, it’s because they abandoned their core principles. I said, ‘Hey, we need to return to these core principles,’ and I grabbed their interest,” Chaffetz says. “People feel disenfranchised by distance, ignored.”

And many are shocked when Chaffetz writes them back on Facebook, for instance. Communication is key, he says. And he means it.

“It took a relative outsider to show the party what they were doing wrong,” Philpot says of Chaffetz. “We’ve been against institutional change, and you don’t really have an open system.”

But opening the system may be harder than starting a Facebook page. “Part of my use of it was out of (financial) necessity, but you’d better have something to say,” Chaffetz warns.

Both parties now employ blogs, for instance, but that’s still a top-down model. “Blogs are all about how our Republican leadership can give you a message,” Philpot says. “We ought to have a far more dynamic approach; delegates should be able to communicate with leadership, precinct chairs communicate with other chairs.” Instant messaging might be an answer, he says. In fact, the communication paradigm may be what’s pumping up the party’s right wing.

Old-school conservative Dave Hansen is running for party chair. [Hansen prevailed, see sidebar.] A former schoolteacher, Hansen never went back to teaching once he got a taste of politics. That was in 1980, when he chaired the state Republican convention and helped get Bill Stevenson elected party chair.

He’s since worked on the Republican National Committee and has run campaigns for Utah’s former Republican Gov. Norm Bangerter, for Lt. Gov. Val Oveson, for John Swallow when he ran for Congress in ’92, for Fred Lampropoulos’ gubernatorial bid in 2004 and for Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch’s re-election bid in 2006.

Hansen talks about using the new communication “tools,” but mostly to recruit volunteers. It’s not surprising that, being a longtime insider, he doesn’t really think the Republican Party is in trouble. “We have great majorities of elected office holders,” he says in a “no-duh” statement.

But he’s running with and against people who would change the face of Republican Utah, or at least massage it. Conventions are typically showcases for the party hardliners, those often on the fringes. And while the chairmanship will be critical, it is still Gary Herbert’s presence and his conservative credentials that will shape the party of the future.

The Sutherland Institute would do away with conventions, certainly to the relief of some. Mero would like to see open primaries for both Republicans and Democrats. It’s more “we-the-people,” he says. And it gets back to his battle against cynicism.

Mero also thinks the open primaries would bring the parties more to the middle. For those who see the Sutherland Institute on the far right, that’s a stunning goal.

Sitting in the Sutherland’s tidy and spotless office atop the Crane Building, Mero muses that the goal in politics is to involve people. Of course, it’s also to ensure that they have the “proper” perspective, too. He’s out to change the culture that way.

“There’s great clarity here,” says Mero says of the institute. Clearly, that’s true.

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