As an author, Chris Stewart has written numerous tales of political intrigue.
But at the Utah Republican Convention on Saturday, he found himself in the middle of a bizarre and confounding conspiracy tale, complete with claims of bad blood, skullduggery, secret alliances and double agents.
And when it spilled out onto the convention stage with vitriol and outrage, befuddled delegates in the 2nd Congressional District race were left scratching their heads.
Stewart emerged the winner on the day, clinching the GOP nomination as his closest competitor, former House Speaker Dave Clark, faded amid the fog of the battle.
What remains are murky charges and recriminations that remain almost impossible to sort out. This much appears to be clear: Several of Stewart’s 10 opponents in the 2nd District race found his demeanor and tactics during the campaign grating.
Candidate Chuck Williams, a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a Pentagon official, grew concerned that Stewart was embellishing his record as a pilot, misleading voters into thinking he flew combat missions and led an around-the-world speed record.
Stewart’s camp also allegedly told delegates that Howard Wallack, who is Jewish, “isn’t one of us. For all we know he could be a Muslim.” Wallack confronted Stewart about the statement, but Stewart said it is “absolutely untrue” that it came from his campaign.
“What a dumb, dumb campaign tactic if someone were to try to do that,” Stewart said. He also denies his record was exaggerated in any way and he has provided proof. “I’m proud of my service,” he said.
By the end of the campaign, the resentment fed a coalition, where the group agreed to support one another when other members were dropped out at convention.
Enter Milt Hanks.
Low-profile candidate • The Mayor of Eureka was a last-minute filer in the race, never bought a booth at county conventions, and spent less than $1,700 on his campaign.
A pre-convention survey of delegates by the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University found one delegate of the 276 surveyed supported Hanks, according to Quin Monson, associate director of the center.
Essentially, Hanks had never factored into the race — until his speech Saturday afternoon.
Hanks blasted four candidates — Williams, Wallack, Cherilyn Eagar and Clark — accusing them of cutting a backroom deal to bring down Stewart.
Hanks said that before the Davis County Convention, he had been asked to join the “Anybody But Chris” group, and accused it of smearing Stewart, waving an anonymous letter sent to delegates at the last minute.
The letter, postmarked April 18, claimed Stewart had inflated his military record, lobbied for and received federal stimulus money for his company, and worked with his brother, Tim Stewart, to send out the infamous “Temple Mailer” during the 2010 cycle — a slick mailer sent to delegates that made it appear that Mike Lee’s campaign was challenging incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett’s Mormonism.
“I shoveled too many chicken coops not to recognize what it was,” Hanks said.
When Hanks finished, he received thunderous applause and many delegates who had already marked their ballots for other candidates asked for new ones so they could change their votes.
The Williams, Wallack, Eagar and Clark campaigns were furious, but had no opportunity to respond. They deny sending the mailer and it appears very few delegates actually received it.
Wallack was convinced Hanks was a plant, brought into the race by Stewart to throw mud and turn the outcome.
After Hanks finished third on the first round of balloting with 121 votes the fear among the other campaigns was that he would drop out, throw his support to Stewart and give him the nomination.
Charges and counters • In a bizarre sequence of events, Eagar offered a rambling defense to Hanks’ charges before her time expired. Williams took to the microphone and called Stewart a “bold-faced liar” before being cut off. When his mic was turned back on, he dropped out of the race and threw his support to Clark.
Eagar returned to the mic and withdrew as well, as did Wallack, trying to force Stewart into a primary with Clark.
But in the end, Stewart clinched the 2nd District nomination by 13 votes.
“They all got up and did exactly what I said they were going to do,” Hanks said in an interview this week. “If you were trying to plead innocent to a plot and there really was a plot I was involved in, I would have gone into that little huddle and said, ‘Good luck, Dave. You’re on your own.’”
Clark insists there was never any conspiracy. The candidates had asked for each others’ support, but that is part of the process, he says. Indeed, ousted candidates endorsed survivors in every race Saturday.
“To have an individual get up and bold-faced lie about our participation in this and never really have an opportunity to [recover] from that is politics at its seediest,” Clark said.
Wallack said that Hanks was “a plant that was put into the race to put forth false accusations.”
Eagar said Hanks’ claims are “totally false. ... The most important thing right now is we want to make sure our names are cleared in this.”
She said that, in addition to the party’s inquiry, the Federal Election Commission needs to find out who sent the letter to delegates, since anonymous mailings violate campaign finance law.
Hanks says the other campaigns are simply upset because they lost.
“People who lose are like people whose children lose a little league game: The other team cheated and the officials made bad calls because they didn’t win on the field,” Hanks said. “I’m just telling you: There was no collusion and I wasn’t a plant.”
Hanks acknowledges he is a close friend with Connie Smith, the chairwoman of the Juab County Republican Party who worked hard on Stewart’s campaign. Hanks said Smith encouraged him to run for office — for the 4th Congressional District seat or the county commission — but when Hanks hesitated, she went to work as a volunteer for Stewart.
“It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?” Stewart said of the claim Hanks was a plant. “If someone is going to make accusations against our campaign they should have some evidence and there just isn’t any.”
Stewart said his campaign is trying to put the conflict behind it and focus on winning the election in November against Democrat Jay Seegmiller, a former state lawmaker.
“Any time politics gets down in the mud, it’s bad for everyone,” Stewart said. “No one benefits when someone gets down in a very personal, negative process.”
GOP Begins Inquiry
Candidates and campaign staff in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District race were summoned to the state Republican Party headquarters Wednesday, as the party chairman began his investigation into events surrounding the implosion at the party convention Saturday.
“I don’t view it as a criminal investigation. This is just the delegates asking me as their chairman to help sort out the facts,” said Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.
Candidate Cherilyn Eagar said she will meet with the party on Thursday and hopes for a fair, thorough investigation. But if the party has a conflict of interest, since Stewart is the nominee, an independent investigation may be necessary.
But Wright said he has no horse in the race and his only interest is getting delegates objective information about what transpired.
“I have made a commitment to the delegates to release to them the facts that I find,” he said. “I have no fear about releasing those. I will be honest with them and forthcoming in what I find.”
Wright said he isn’t sure how long it will take to gather information, but he won’t release anything unless he’s sure it’s accurate.
Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, said it might benefit Wright to get to the bottom of what happened before Democrats do, especially if there was something embarrassing.
“In that sense there is every incentive for Thomas Wright to be an honest broker here,” Monson said.
— Robert Gehrke