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Utah’s GOP attorney general race turns into furious fight

Match between Republicans John Swallow and Sean Reyes sparks negative ads, lawsuit.

First Published Jun 22 2012 04:40 pm • Last Updated Sep 11 2012 11:37 pm

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.

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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.

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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."

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