Utah Senate Republicans elect new leader; House retains speaker
Sandy Sen. Wayne Niederhauser was selected as the next Utah Senate president and House Speaker Becky Lockhart was given a second term in Republican leadership elections Thursday evening.
Lockhart, the state's first woman House speaker, fended off a challenge from Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, while Niederhauser defeated Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, for the top Senate post.
In the Senate, Niederhauser promised to listen to the public and try to be inclusive and transparent in the policymaking.
"It's not about us, the Senate or the House. It's about what is good for the people," Niederhauser said. "We have to look outside our bodies. All things can't be created inside here, and that means that people â¦ need to be involved with their Legislature."
That inclusiveness will not, however, mean a change to the Senate tradition of closing caucuses, which Niederhauser said gives senators a forum to debate issues without reporters, lobbyists and the public watching their every word.
"I actually feel that [closing caucuses] creates some transparency that we wouldn't have otherwise," Niederhauser said, after he beat Jenkins in the closed-door vote.
Niederhauser will replace Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, who is retiring at the end of his term and has been called as a mission president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Sen. Ralph Okerlund, who suffered a heart attack on Monday, was chosen as Senate majority leader after addressing his colleagues by phone from the hospital, where he is expected to stay until next week.
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, was unopposed as majority whip, and Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, was re-elected as assistant whip.
"It's quite an honor to serve," said Adams. "It's quite an honor to be here as an elected official representing what we hope is the will of the people."
Niederhauser, who was elected to the Senate in 2006, is an accountant and real estate developer from Sandy. He also is Utah co-chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed group of conservative lawmakers from around the country that has been criticized for its influence in formulating policy around the country.
Niederhauser is not charting a drastically different course than his predecessor, Waddoups, so far. Asked about alcohol policy, he said he remains concerned about overconsumption and binge drinking. And he said he sees no need for a statewide law prohibiting housing and employment discrimination against gay and lesbian individuals, since local ordinances seem to be working.
In the House, Republicans returned the entire leadership team except for electing Rep. Don Ipson, R-St. George, as assistant whip to fill a vacancy.
Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, and Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, were re-elected along with Lockhart, while Ipson will replace Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, who decided not to run again for assistant whip.
"This is a great honor and I take this responsibility very seriously to serve the House for two more years," Lockhart said.
Lockhart became Utah's first female House speaker two years ago, edging out then-Speaker Dave Clark by one vote. At the time, Lockhart criticized speakers who had served multiple terms, saying they had concentrated too much power in the Speaker's office.
But Lockhart said that her style has been to diffuse power and let the caucus make decisions.
Meanwhile, Ipson said his main assignment will be helping the large number of freshman lawmakers learn the ropes.
"I'm extremely honored, number one, to be part of this team, number two to represent my colleagues who had enough faith in me to vote for me and to allow me to have this opportunity," Ipson said.