‘I might depart early,’ Chaffetz says

(Chris Detrick  |  Tribune file photo)   Rep. Jason Chaffetz has announced he will not seek re-election. (Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Rep. Jason Chaffetz has announced he will not seek re-election.
What’s next? • Congressman’s future plans are unclear; a special election would be required to fill the vacancy, but Utah’s law on the procedure is fuzzy.

Washington • Rep. Jason Chaffetz says he may step down early from his House seat, leaving a vacancy that would be filled by a special election that is fuzzy under current state law.

“I might depart early,” Chaffetz told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday. “It very well might happen.”

If he resigns, he said, it will not be right away.

“There are all these silly rumors that it’s going to be tomorrow. No. No. No,” he said. “If I do it, it’s going to be months from now.”

And he noted that he has been in negotiation with a prospective employer but wouldn’t say what job he may take. He declined to say whether it would be a TV gig, though the congressman has a background in corporate communications and is a frequent guest on the cable circuit.

Chaffetz surprised Utah political circles Wednesday when he said he wouldn’t run for re-election or for any other seat in 2018, though he hinted he could run for governor in 2020.

The Utah Republican said that he wouldn’t run again, and possibly step down early, because he’s tired of being away from his family so much.

He said unequivocally that no scandal was involved in his decision to leave before his term was up.

“No,” he said. “I have had more enemas about my background than just about anybody, so absolutely, positively no. That’s ridiculous. No way, shape or form.”

Chaffetz said if he does resign, the timing would have nothing to do with whether state lawmakers had figured out a fix for the unclear law on special elections to fill a vacant House seat.

“They’re going to have to figure that out,” he said.

Utah law says simply that if a U.S. House member resigns, “the governor shall issue a proclamation calling an election to fill the vacancy.”

But it doesn’t spell out any process of winnowing the field of candidates or when the election must be held. If, say, a dozen candidates ran, the winner could be elected with a small percentage of the vote.

State lawmakers pushed legislation earlier this year when President Donald Trump was considering Rep. Chris Stewart as the civilian head of the Air Force. That job went to former New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson, and Utah lawmakers, no longer faced with an imminent need for a special-election law, punted when it became entangled in Republican Party politics over how candidates would get on the primary ballot.

Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday at his monthly news conference that he does not believe a special session of the Legislature is needed to clarify the law for a special House election.

He conceded “there is probably a little bit of uncertainty” about the process, but said he would see such an election going through “the same process you would do for a regular election, but it will be held at a different time of the year. … That means delegates will have to get together and will draft a convention process for anybody who wants to run. It may require a primary, and then we will have a general [election].”

“We’ll let the attorney general and the legal experts guide us,” he added.

But the governor did not address a prickly issue for Utah Republicans — signature gathering to get on the primary ballot without going through a convention, a topic that remains the subject of a party lawsuit against the state. It was GOP infighting on this issue that caused the scrapping of a special election bill, SB252, on the final night of the recent legislative session.

Sen. Curt Bramble, sponsor of SB252, allowed the measure to die when conservative GOP House members stripped signature gathering from the measure in violation of a deal lawmakers made with Count My Vote organizers.

But he believes the state needs such a law. “I’ve got to believe we would be better served by having a specific, established guideline for that election” than leaving it entirely up to the executive branch, said Bramble, R-Provo.

“Either we have a special session [of the Legislature] and establish a criteria or the state elections office determines how they want to do it. They could do it with a primary, they could do it with any process at all, they could simply have one election and have all comers and winner take all. They could have a runoff, they could have a primary — whatever they choose.”

Bramble doesn’t like leaving the decision solely up to the executive. “It’s the people’s ballot, not the party’s.”

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said that he and House Speaker Greg Hughes discussed the issue during a legislative trip on Thursday and said they would like to put whatever election process that is outlined into statute in a special session, if needed.

“Doesn’t it make sense to put it in statute? That’s at least what we are thinking,” Niederhauser said. “We know we need to sit down with the governor, because it doesn’t work unless all three of us are involved.”

Alliance for a Better Utah also weighed in on the side of calling a special session of the Legislature to spell out how the election would work.

“The Legislature is the proper body to answer these questions. Otherwise, any election procedures or results could end up in the courts and could leave voters feeling disenfranchised from their rights,” said Chase Thomas, the group’s policy and advocacy counsel. “For this reason, it’s essential that the governor calls a special session to address this issue as soon as possible.”

Herbert said he hopes a special session isn’t needed, but if it is, he notes he already tentatively plans one in late summer to tweak a new law that makes Utah’s drunken driving laws the toughest in the nation.

Utah has replaced a U.S. representative at midterm only once — 88 years ago when then-Rep. Elmer O. Leatherwood, R-Utah, died in office Dec. 24, 1929, at age 57.

His seat remained vacant for more than 10 months. The state at that time went through the normal caucus-convention system, with parties choosing nominees for a special election to complete Leatherwood’s term and also the next full term. Voters cast ballots for both on Election Day 1930.

Republican Frederick C. Loofbourow was elected both to serve the last couple of months of Leatherwood’s term and his own two-year term, taking office immediately after the Nov. 4, 1930, election. Newspaper archives show he won the GOP nomination by beating two other candidates at the party convention.

A group of Republicans emerged as possible replacements for Chaffetz in the highly Republican 3rd Congressional District, including state Sen. Deidre Henderson, Hughes, state Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, (although he doesn’t live in the district), former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, Provo Mayor John Curtis and lawyer Damian Kidd, of American Fork. On the Democratic side, Kathryn Allen, a first-time candidate, has raised $500,000 in a viral campaign.

Thursday, Bramble indicated his own possible interest in the race. Asked if he would jump in, Bramble said “not today.”

But the past president of the National Conference of State Legislatures offered that he had received 50 to 70 phone calls within 24 hours of Chaffetz’s announcement from around the country from contacts in business, politics and lobbying, saying, “ ‘Bramble, if you run, we’re ready to write a check.’ But that’s not on my radar.”

— Senior Managing Editor Matt Canham and editor Dan Harrie contributed to this report.