Merrill Nelson fires numerous attacks at state Rep. Bill Wright: He's extreme; he nearly enacted a restrictive sex-education bill that only the far-right wanted; he pushed an immigration reform bill to help his own business; and he helped draw a new legislative district that makes little sense except to protect him.
Wright, one of the state's most conservative lawmakers, denies all that and returns fire at Nelson, a moderate former legislator challenging him in a June 26 Republican primary. "I am much more traditional than him. He's a populist. â¦ He tells people what he thinks they want to hear," Wright says. "There's a big divide in philosophy."
That not only makes for a lively shootout in their race in vast, rural House District 68 Â running from Tooele County to Beaver County Â it may be symbolic of the political year so far in Utah, as moderates have been making life difficult for the state's most conservative politicians.
Among ultra-conservatives in the Utah House who have been eliminated by people more moderate so far are Reps. Ken Sumsion (who ran for governor); Chris Herrod (U.S. Senate), Craig Frank (state Senate) and Merlynn Newbold (state House); along with former Reps. Steve Sandstrom (Congress) and Carl Wimmer (Congress). Wright is among conservatives who were unable to clinch the GOP nomination at convention and were forced into the primary.
That happened as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, spent millions to recruit more moderate delegates to caucuses and conventions to fend off attacks from the right, and the LDS Church read letters over the pulpit and canceled meetings to urge its members to attend caucuses to ensure broader representation.
Nelson, a Grantsville attorney who served in the Legislature from 1991-93 Â and who helps operate a hotline to advise LDS clergy on how to handle abuse cases Â says he "wants to help restore public confidence in the Legislature to avoid these extreme views, to be more mainstream Republican, to be more rational, more responsive to the peopleâ¦ instead of issuing edicts from Capitol Hill that are contrary to the will of the people."
He points to HB363 that Wright pushed through the Legislature this year, but which was vetoed by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert. It would have allowed school districts to drop sex-education classes, and would have banned teaching about contraception in any classes that are offered.
"It took away parental choice on a matter that is very important to parents. More than 90 percent of parents had opted to have their children in the school programs," says Nelson, whose wife serves on the Tooele County School Board. "The Legislature through its heavy hand totally ignored the public will."
Wright strongly defends the bill he pushed. "I think it's inappropriate to teach 9-year-olds contraception. There's no reason to do it. â¦ It destroys the innocence of our children. â¦ It was a good bill."
As another example, Nelson criticizes HB116 that Wright passed in 2011 to create a "guest worker" program aimed at allowing some undocumented immigrants to live and work in Utah. Nelson says it could be unconstitutional and gives incentives for illegal immigration.
"I'm afraid that what motivated Bill Wright," said Nelson, "was to get cheap labor for his dairy farm."
Wright scoffs at that.
He says the bill was a key part of the Utah Compact to handle immigration compassionately. He adds that his dairy operation does not use illegal-immigrant workers. "I've always had employees. Some of those employees are Hispanic, some of them are not. I am consistent with the law in doing what I am supposed to do."
Nelson Â who is a board member of the Utah Fair Boundaries Coalition, which seeks to turn redistricting over to an independent commission Â also blames Wright for the unusual shape of redrawn District 68, which he says continues to shortchange Tooele County residents.
"It was apparently drawn by my opponent because the only one of the five counties kept whole is his home county of Millard. In addition to that, he handpicked other areas that would be convenient for him like Elberta." Wright represented Elberta for 16 years in the Legislature before moving to Holden, where he was appointed in 2009 to fill a vacancy.
Nelson said Tooele County has had only one member of the Legislature living there in recent years, while most counties its size have three or more. "Legislators should not draw their own districts," he said.
Wright says he did not try to influence the lines of his district and stayed away from all redistricting hearings.
"I never talked to anybody. I never went to one meeting."
In the end, voters will pick the nominee, and Wright predicts it will "probably come down to a pretty close race."