Utah lawmaker Paul Ray has a way of making enemies — and he likes it

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Staff photos of the Salt Lake Tribune staff. Paul Rolly.

What do west side community activist Michael Clara, Colby College professor Paul Josephson, and a California guy named Bill have in common?

They don’t like Rep. Paul Ray.

The Clearfield Republican has a knack of getting under the skin of folks he doesn’t know and likely will never meet.

And he seems to like it.

Besides, none of the folks he has infuriated lives in his district, so he has been able to be re-elected six times.

Clara, a community organizer for Crossroads Urban Center, was involved in protests against the recent Rio Grande police roundup that led to more than 600 arrests, complaining that the exercise pushed criminals into west-side neighborhoods.

Ray weighed in on the issue and put Clara squarely into the crosshairs of his social media sights.

“What have you done to solve the problem other than whine?” Ray wrote on Clara’s Facebook page. “As one of the planners of Operation Rio Grande, I have been down there every day for the last six weeks and have not seen you down there once. You have not offered any solutions. All you have done is attack those of us who are trying to help.”

Ray added: “You care nothing about the people at Rio Grande. All you care about is putting yourself in the limelight.”

That led to the expected response from Clara and some of his Facebook friends along the lines of “who the heck is this guy?”

Clara noted that after his public complaints, he has had useful conversations with House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, one of the architects of Operation Rio Grande, Utah Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

But Ray, he says, comes across as an idiot.

Clara is not the first person to say that.

When it came to light that Ray was drafting a resolution urging California to secede from the United States — in response to stories about some Golden Staters advocating for their own country since Donald Trump was elected president — he generated some ire.

“They’re smoking too much of their medical marijuana,” Ray said in a recent Salt Lake Tribune story.

That was too much for the guy named Bill, who wrote Ray an email addressed to “Jerkhead Ray.”

“Your ancestors were trying their best to get out of the U.S. (so they came to Utah),” Bill wrote.

“They came and attacked U.S. troops, murdered U.S. citizens trying to pass through this territory of the United States and, for 175 years, you’ve done everything to defeat our Bill or Rights and our way of life so the [Mormon] prophet could take his rightful place as dictator.”

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, as the Utah Legislature meets in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017.

Ray responded that his ancestors came from Scotland, lived in the South and Midwest and were Southern Baptists.

“They have, however, fought in every war since the American Revolution,” he wrote, ”to protect your right to email me and give me a piece of your mind.”

Then there was the time Ray got under the skin of Josephson, a history professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, for sponsoring a bill that would bring back the firing squad for executions.

“Jesus would be proud of you,” Josephson wrote. “Vladimir Putin would be proud, too, except in Russia there has been a moratorium on the death penalty since 1996 as immoral and wrong.”

The sarcasm-laced email included a suggestion that executions could be held during halftime at University of Utah games and tickets could be sold to the events. Proceeds could be used to help pay for the costly appeals in capital cases.

He signed the email as a Ph.D. at the “Center for Executions in the Public Interest, 666 Putin St., Gulag, Maine.”

Ray couldn’t stop himself from entering into the arena of sarcasm.

While the professor did not say whom he worked for and used his personal email instead of the college’s, Ray looked him up.

In his response, Ray wrote: “I didn’t realize that Colby College had a center for shooting people legally. Sounds quite morbid and barbaric for a liberal arts school, if you ask me.”

He added, “Give my regards to President [David A.] Greene,” the president of Colby College, and copied the email, which he titled “Harassing emails,” to “president@colby.edu.”

The dueling wasn’t over.

Josephson distributed Ray’s retort to numerous Utah newspapers in an attempt to alert the lawmaker’s bosses: the public. He also pointed out that Ray sent the response on his government-issued email.

“I do like to mix it up,” Ray told me when asked about his growing collection of enemies. “The legislative process involves agitation, education and legislation. My wife says I’m best at the agitation part.”

He picked up a large congregation of antagonists a few years ago when he sponsored a bill to tack a dollar onto the sales tax for tobacco.

One man sued Ray for violating the man’s right to smoke.

The lawmaker may get his spirit from the time he spent as a young man as a high-wire and trapeze artist.

“That’s actually what got me into politics,” he said. “After I left the circus, I missed the clowns. So I joined the Legislature.”