The shrill rhetoric and anti-American suspicions swirling among the tea-party, anti-incumbent, take-our-country-back political environment of 2010 has fumed to a boiling point in Salt Lake County, where a number of candidates will participate in a debate that has been planned for months in Holladay but lately has been cloaked in a Kafkaesque shadow.
The debate, to which 19 Salt Lake County candidates from the Republican, Democratic and Constitution parties have been invited, is being greeted with suspicion by several Democratic candidates because of the rhetoric coming from its sponsoring organization, the East Side Voter Forum, and the criminal background of one of that organization's founders.
In fact, retiring Rep. Phil Riesen, a Democrat, was scheduled to moderate the debate between the two candidates vying to replace him in his East Millcreek district Democrat Patrice Arent and Republican Jason Epps but recently backed out.
"I was concerned about what I perceived to be the partisan nature of this event and that one of the organizers, Dick Jones, is a convicted child sex abuser," Riesen said.
Indeed, Jones, a co-founder of the Holladay Republican Club and the East Side Voter Forum, was convicted of second-degree felony child sex abuse in 1990, spent five years at the Utah State Prison and spent another 10 years on probation. He is on the sex offender registry.
But he says Riesen erroneously implied his crime was recent, when it was "two decades ago," and that he since has been an active community organizer and advocate and has been a presenter at forums on how to prevent sex abuse. He says his past is being unfairly used to divert attention from the real issues, and he called Riesen "a bigot" for his views.
Democratic Reps. Marie Poulson, of Cottonwood Heights, and Laura Black, of Sandy, will be in Texas for an energy conference and will not attend the debate. Democratic District Attorney candidate Sim Gill also will be attending a different event and will be absent. Some of the Democrats believed e-mails sent by Jones urging them to attend the event appeared to be threatening, a claim Jones denies. He says he has just pointed out that they will be missing an opportunity to address their constituents and their opponents will be taking advantage of that opportunity.
Also, the invitation to the debate contains what some view as tea party rhetoric, with phrases such as "voters are angry this year because of government intrusions into their lives and how their tax money was given away â¦" and "government officials seem to take more and more control over the lives of responsible citizens."
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, says she will attend the debate, mostly to watch her back because she doesn't know what would be said about her in her absence.
Democrats also were concerned about the debate fliers being handed out at an LDS stake Labor Day breakfast last weekend, but Jones said there was nothing inappropriate about that because it is a nonpartisan event.
State Republican Chairman Dave Hansen says the East Side Voter Forum and the Holladay Republican Club are not affiliated with the official party and "we really have nothing to do with that."
Just another day in Utah politics, circa 2010.