Rolly: Nonprofit group looking to celebrate the history of Utah women lands itself in partisan hot water

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Paul Rolly.

A nonprofit organization that successfully pushed for legislative approval this year to replace television pioneer Philo T. Farnsworth with Martha Hughes Cannon as one of two statues representing Utah at the U.S. Capitol inadvertently turned its mission into a partisan controversy.

Cannon was the first woman elected to a state Senate seat, defeating her polygamist husband 10 months after Utah received statehood in 1896 and 24 years before women earned the right to vote in federal elections.

Among the advocates for Cannon, a feminist trailblazer and a leading voice in the suffragist movement, was a recently organized nonprofit called Better Days 2020, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to honoring and popularizing the history of the state’s women and their legacy.

Although Republicans (Rep. Becky Edwards of North Salt Lake and Sen. Todd Weiler of Woods Cross) sponsored the resolution, several GOP legislators opposed it. The measure would need the backing of Democrats to get out of committee.

It did and then cleared the House and Senate, thanks to the votes of Democratic Reps. Carol Spackman Moss of Holladay and Angela Romero of Salt Lake City.

Yet, the Better Days nonprofit — which received $700,000 over the next two years from the Legislature for educational and cultural programs and events to honor the contributions of women to the state and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women earning the right to vote — left out Democratic officeholders when it announced a fundraiser featuring only GOP women.

After enduring considerable criticism on Facebook and other social media, the group expanded its list of honorees to include some Democrats, although some, out of principle, refused to accept.

Dubbed “A Conversation with Ann Romney,” wife of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney, the invitation for May 29 at Thanksgiving Point noted that panelists will include Edwards, Republican Rep. Mia Love, state Sen. Deidre Henderson (R-Spanish Fork) and Jeanette Herbert, wife of Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.

The reaction was quick and sharp, with Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and others pointing out that the group is, by definition, nonpartisan, yet it is featuring only female Republicans in an event honoring women during an election year.

Romney even has a GOP primary opponent in Rep. Michael Kennedy, R-Alpine, but his wife, Katrina, was not invited to participate.

The Better Days group didn’t help itself when it posted that some people didn’t feel comfortable being there with Democrats but added that it would hold Democratic events in the future.

The group’s CEO, Neylan McBaine, agreed that was a poorly worded response, stating that her group never intended to make it a strictly partisan event.

Edwards and Henderson were highlighted, she said, because they sponsored legislation for the Cannon statue and for a license plate commemorating women’s suffrage. Love was included for her work on women’s issues in Congress.

After the criticism, the program now includes Spackman Moss; Karen Hale, a top deputy to Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who is Love’s Democratic opponent for Congress; and Democratic 2nd Congressional District candidate Shireen Ghorbani.

The kerfuffle over the partisan appearance at the so-called nonpartisan event is reminiscent of another dust-up in November involving a charitable project.

Longtime Republican activist Marco Diaz had formed a nonprofit called Care-Cuts, which provides free haircuts for the homeless.

At a fundraiser for his organization, he invited McAdams, who has been a leader in the movement to help the homeless, to be the keynote speaker. But that seemed a problem when McAdams announced he was running against Love.

To remedy the predicament, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, was invited to speak, too. Hughes accepted but had to back out later due to a conflict, and McAdams ended up soloing in the spotlight anyway.

So much for trying to please everybody.

Need a ride? • Michael Kennedy, Mitt Romney’s foe for the GOP’s U.S. Senate nod, posted on his Facebook page an open note to his Republican rival offering rides to the campaign staffer Romney has assigned to attend and record Kennedy’s events.

After all, Kennedy said, his campaign has nothing to hide, and it would save on costs and carbon emissions — “the conservative and responsible thing to do.”

Correction • May 13, 2018, 7:50 a.m. • The nonprofit Better Days 2020 will use its legislative appropriation exclusively for educational and cultural programs and events to honor the contributions of Utah women and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women earning the right to vote. An earlier version incorrectly stated that some of the money would be used for the Martha Hughes Cannon statue.