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Utah's GOP attorney general race turns into furious fight

Published June 23, 2012 10:36 am

Match between Republicans John Swallow and Sean Reyes sparks negative ads, lawsuit.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As one of the statewide Republican primary races, the attorney general's contest has been the undercard to the primary battle between Sen. Orrin Hatch and Dan Liljenquist.

But the match between John Swallow and Sean Reyes has turned into a furious fight of its own — featuring negative ads, contentious debates and a defamation of character lawsuit filed in court Friday by Reyes.

The two campaigns have already spent more than $1 million, but with just a few days until the primary, many are just now starting to look at which GOP candidate will ultimately challenge Democrat Dee Smith in November.

For those who have been watching, though, it's been an expensive, vitriolic affair.

"It's something which ordinarily isn't seen," said Matthew Burbank, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah. "We haven't seen this kind of money in the attorney general race — especially a primary."

That doesn't include Super PACS, which have inserted themselves into the race. A Nevada-based group, It's Now or Never, launched ads that referenced a so-called "road rage" incident about Reyes while Ute PAC has been sending out mailers charging Swallow with being the target of an FBI investigation for intervening in a contracting bid in Salt Lake County.

The road rage ads were pulled by media outlet KSL Friday after the Reyes campaign sent out cease and desist orders.

Swallow's campaign ripped Ute PAC for being a Democratic-run entity trying to influence the election with false allegations.

And while there is very little daylight between where the candidates stand on the main issues of the campaign — give Utah control over federal land, repeal President Barack Obama's health care law and get tough on illegal immigration — they are quite different personally.

Reyes, who is running for office for the first time, is a half-Filipino Mormon from Hawaii who has been a private-practice attorney for more than a decade in Utah with awards and accolades he is not shy about touting at speeches during debates. He's a sports fan who grew up idolizing Magic Johnson, studied mixed martial arts and played on the University of California, Berkeley volleyball team.

"My nickname was The Judge because I was usually on the bench," he said with a laugh.

But it's basketball that gives him peace. The 41-year-old plays a few times a week and uses hoops as an analogy as to what kind of attorney general he'd be.

Think point guard.

"I want to equip people around me and give them credit. If I need to be the guy to score and take over a game and finish, I can," Reyes said. "But my preference is that everyone around me is involved in the game and doing their part. That's how you win. You get everyone involved."

He wants to focus on crimes against women and children and target white-collar crime. He said he sees the Attorney General's Office as "fighting for the underdog."

Brian Church, who has known Reyes since his college days at Brigham Young, said Reyes was always wired that way.

He said Reyes worked with him in a group that brought patients from the state mental hospital to Sunday services and recalled one especially challenging person.

"Sean just took him under his wing," Church said. "He showed a lot of patience and understanding and seemed to enjoy spending time with the individual."

As a first-time political candidate, Reyes has been making the case that the Attorney General's Office should be run like a law firm and believes it's been too political under Mark Shurtleff.

And he's been angered by the tone of the campaign as the out-of-state PAC trotted out an incident that happened when he was 21. He said he had just gotten his first car and it was egged. Angry, he chased down the car with the perpetrators to get the license plate and, as he recalls, "nearly got run over and ended up on the hood."

The incident has taken on a life of its own, being mocked in a video and then in the PAC ad.

"It wasn't my intent to fight with them or get into a big confrontation with them. I just wanted them to understand the consequences of their actions," he said. "It wasn't very productive."

Swallow has been involved in politics for 15 years, including a stint as a state lawmaker and two unsuccessful runs for Congress.

But friends say he really found his stride when he became the deputy attorney general under Shurtleff three years ago.

Boyd Kraig, who has known Swallow for 25 years, was with him both nights the 49-year-old discovered he'd lost to U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, in 2002 and 2004. He said the second loss "humbled" him.

"Whenever you're all-in — and John certainly was — and it doesn't work out, it shakes you to your core," Kraig said. "I think that loss made John introspective for a long time."

Swallow said he's been shaped by several things in his life — bouncing around between California, Utah, Nevada and Alaska while growing up — and working on his father's farm as a teenager.

He said one incident in particular came to define his pragmatic, internal drive.

As he tells it, he was 15 and driving a tractor towing hay bales. It was well past midnight when en route, it got stuck in the mud. He ran to his dad to tell him.

"He just rolled over and said, 'Figure it out.' " Swallow said. "And went back to sleep."

Swallow said he spent the next four hours removing more than 60, 120-pound bales to get the tractor out of the mud. He delivered the hay and got home just at dawn.

And what did his dad say?

"Not a word," Swallow said. "He expected it."

He said that methodical approach to a job is how things get done and that people should simply expect results from the Attorney General's Office, too.

"It taught me I could solve a problem if I was willing to pay the price," he said.

The nastiness of the primary has featured an array of allegations and revelations that's left mud on both sides. Among the issues raised are campaign-violation investigations on both sides — Swallow's former congressional campaign paid an $8,000 fine for excessive contributions and Reyes' A.G. campaign was questioned, but ultimately cleared, over a reported $5,000 contribution before he was a candidate.

Quin Monson, assistant political science professor at BYU, said all the allegations and countercharges may not add up to much because "up until now, the race has largely been invisible to most voters."

dmontero@sltrib.comTwitter: @davemontero