Four-term legislator faces new obstacles in re-election bid
At this time of year, Rep. Kraig Powell (R-Heber) is usually busy soliciting delegate support in anticipation of the state Republican Convention. But nothing is normal about this year’s party conventions at either the state or national levels.
Powell, who is seeking a fifth term to represent District 54 in the Utah Legislature, is facing a challenge from within his own party, but unlike his opponent, Powell’s name won’t be on the list of candidates at the state convention on Saturday. Instead, he opted to follow a new path to public office established by the Legislature in 2014 and being put to the test for the first time this year.
Instead of relying on the current caucus/convention system, where party-appointed delegates potentially pick who will move on to the Election Day ballot, candidates can petition to ask voters to make that decision through a primary election.
As per Senate Bill 54, the hard-fought compromise that allows candidates to choose whether to participate in the old caucus system or try the new petition route, Powell needed to collect 1,000 signatures from registered Republican voters in his district at least two weeks before of the convention.
Which is why, on a cold snowy Saturday last January, Powell found himself knocking on doors in Midway asking for signatures on a petition to support his eligibility to appear on the Republican primary ballot.
"I had a goal to get 100 signatures," said Powell, who enlisted 48 volunteers to help with the effort. "I know some others paid companies to do it, but I don’t have that kind of money."
"I did several nights and weekends myself and I found that lots of people were enthusiastic about the new process."
That Saturday started out sunny but, as the sun set, the temperatures dropped.
" dark I only had 88 signatures. It was snowing and cold, and I was all bundled up. I will never forget that day," Powell said.
The effort paid off. Powell handed in his 1,000 signatures well in advance of the deadline and received a letter from the Lieutenant Governor’s office certifying him as a Republican primary candidate.
His opponent for the party’s nomination, Tim Quinn, and many other candidates, including Dist. 53 Rep. Mel Brown (R-Coalville) and even Governor Gary Herbert, hedged their bets by collecting signatures and participating in their party caucuses.
Powell, though, said he wanted to make a strong statement in support of SB 54 by choosing to bypass the caucus altogether.
"I feel the new process is important, more healthy — it is majority rule over minority."
He admits the decision jeopardized his candidacy.
"I knew there was a risk if the rule was invalidated, that I could be excluded and kicked off the ballot," Powell said.
With the state convention less than a week away, the issue is still simmering.
Last week, despite a Utah Supreme Court ruling upholding SB 54, the Republican Party made a last-ditch effort to appeal the measure saying the party has a constitutional right to set its side of the ballot. They also threatened to expel candidates who refused to participate in the convention process.
Late Friday, GOP leaders reluctantly agreed to abide by the judge’s decision but, according to Powell, some party organizers are still threatening to withhold resources from those who don’t play by the old rules.
According to the current caucus/convention system, if a candidate earns 60 percent of the delegates’ votes at the convention, he or she becomes the official party candidate and the others are eliminated. If no one achieves 60 percent of the vote, the top two vote getters go to a primary runoff.
But under SB 54, Powell’s packet of signatures guarantees him a spot on the primary ballot, just as the signatures gathered by Brown and Herbert immunize them even if they fail to gain enough delegate votes at the convention.
"I just don’t think it’s appropriate for the Republican Party to be openly defying a law passed by a Republican-dominated Legislature it was a huge compromise that was supposed to make everyone happy so it was important to me to be a test case, to ensure the full import of SB 54 is honored. This is a law that should be upheld," Powell said.
Even though his name won’t be on the Summit County or Utah Republican Convention ballots this week, Powell said he will attend both. He is on the agenda to speak at the county’s GOP convention on Thursday evening at South Summit High School. He is also planning to participate in Saturday’s state convention at the Salt Palace where he hopes to run for a spot as a delegate to the national convention.
That is, unless the Utah GOP has another change of heart and he is expelled altogether.
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