Seven weeks before announcing his candidacy Tuesday for Salt Lake County mayor, Mike Winder received a letter from county Republican Party leaders.
It encouraged him not to enter the race because of a potential backlash to his “breach in ethical conduct” for impersonating a journalist. Winder admitted writing several articles that were positive about West Valley City, where he is mayor, under the pen name Richard Burwash. He later apologized.
Now county GOP Chairwoman Julie Dole is under some fire within county GOP ranks for allegedly violating a party bylaw requiring officers to be neutral until delegates select candidates for office.
Dole said Friday that nothing improper occurred. The Dec. 7, 2011, letter she signed along with Vice Chairman Chad Bennion and Secretary Ben Soholt was simply, she said, a response to Winder’s request for feedback on his possible candidacy.
“Mr. Winder did email the county [Republican] officers on Nov. 22, 2011 … asking for us to share our concerns if he chose to run,” Dole said. “That’s what we did. Never, at any point, have we told Mr. Winder not to run or that we wouldn’t support him. … We just provided the feedback he solicited.”
But not all members of party leadership believe the letter was so innocent, especially since Dole told The Salt Lake Tribune on Jan. 18, when Winder first said he was running, that “it’s unfortunate he’s chosen to be a candidate with the pending litigation.”
Jay Brummett, who represents state Senate District 3 on the county GOP’s executive committee, said Friday “any action that could be viewed as supporting a candidate or opposing the candidacy of anyone who chooses to run as a Republican is specifically prohibited.”
“The comments in the press, the letter on county party letterhead, is of deep concern to a number of folks who serve on the executive committee,” he said. But Brummett did not know of any efforts to formally chastise Dole.
Nor did Pat Malan, Senate District 10’s executive committee representative. But he also criticized Dole, saying “it’s bad enough to send a letter [to Winder], but to bring [his predicament] up in the public, that’s something that needs to be addressed.”
Winder said the Nov. 22 email seeking feedback was sent to hundreds of supporters, not specifically to Dole or other party leaders, and that he was surprised to receive a response on GOP stationery.
“I am disappointed that party bosses are trying to filter candidates and encourage or discourage other candidates to run,” he said. “My understanding is that party leaders should stay neutral until the nominee is chosen and then stand behind that nominee.”
Dole brushed off the criticism as the opinions “of a small group that is being misled or feeding into what’s out there.”
Quin Monson, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, said the kind of letter Dole sent was “certainly unusual.”
“Party leaders would generally encourage or discourage candidacies behind the scenes,” he said. “Perhaps this letter was meant to stay private, but anytime you commit something to paper you risk it becoming public.”
Thomas Wright, the Utah GOP chairman and a former Salt Lake County GOP leader, declined to weigh in on the dispute other than to say “the party chairman should be as neutral as possible.”
He doesn’t think an internal party squabble will hurt Republican chances of winning the county mayor’s race in November.
“Voters are going to vote for candidates based on policy positions,” Wright said, noting that Republicans regained control of the County Council in the last election cycle. “This trend will continue in 2012. This isn’t going to stop us from [winning]. That’s a top priority for the state Republican Party.”