‘Trib Talk’: Paul Rolly’s five things to know about Utah politics, Mormons and The Salt Lake Tribune

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Paul Rolly speaks at an event in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015.

On today’s episode of “Trib Talk,” Tribune reporter Benjamin Wood chats with recently retired columnist Paul Rolly about his view of Utah politics after a long media career, and the recent staff cuts at The Salt Lake Tribune.

A lightly edited transcription of their conversation is included below.

Paul Rolly: 1974, I started as a copy boy.

Benjamin Wood: That’s Paul Rolly, longtime and recently retired columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.

Rolly: I was promoted to obit[uary] writer, I always liked to joke about that. And I did that for about six months and then I went up the traditional ladder in those days. I was a night police reporter and then a general-assignment reporter and then started doing various beats.

The beats I probably ended up covering the most [were] political and government, the Legislature and business. I spent a few years on the business desk and then I was an assistant city editor for a while and then I ended up doing this column.

Wood: On Monday, roughly one-third of The Salt Lake Tribune’s staff was laid off in a round of steep cuts ordered by the newspaper’s owner and publisher.

To say goodbye, we invited Paul back to share his thoughts on Utah politics and journalism.

From The Salt Lake Tribune, this is “Trib Talk.”

I’m Benjamin Wood, joined today by Paul Rolly. Paul, thanks for coming in today.

Paul Rolly: Thanks for having me.

Wood: How’s the last couple days been for you?

Rolly: It’s been weird. I still get up and think about the deadline I need to make and then all the sudden I realize, Oh, I don’t have a deadline. So now I just walk my dog and I’m starting to get the sense of being free, but it’s still weird because this is the first time in — what — 43 years or something that I haven’t gotten ready to go down to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Wood: Well we really do appreciate you coming in. Of course you’ve been a columnist for a long time. You had a little more latitude than a lot of journalists to speak your mind. But in that same spirit we wanted to kind of pick your brain about five big topics today.

I’m curious, Paul, what you think Utahns should know about Democrats in Utah?

Rolly: It’s a little bit depressing to look at the Democrats in Utah because they’re pretty much irrelevant, to be honest with you. They try. But there are a number of reasons why they’ve almost become nonexistent as far as being able to move any policy issues or anything like that.

It started with Roe v. Wade, which was a big deal, and the Democrats, traditionally, have been on the side of pro-choice and that sort of thing, which has turned off a lot of Utahns. That’s been a major, No. 1 issue for a lot of people.

It got worse in, I believe it was the late ’70s early ’80s when Ezra Taft Benson — it was before he was president of the [LDS] Church, but he was, I think, the No. 2 person in the church — he did an interview in which he said that you couldn’t be a good Mormon and a liberal Democrat at the same time. If you were a liberal Democrat you didn’t understand the gospel. Here was a guy who was considered a prophet making a statement like that, that had a big impact on the minds of people in Utah.

Then you had the Reagan revolution of 1980 and you had a lot of really conservative people come into the Legislature. When you think about it, you think Utah has big families and now all of the sudden in the ’80s you’ve got this big swing to the Republican Party. You’ve seen the polls that say Mormons are the most Republican religion of any religion. When you think about it, these people in 1980, they have five kids, right, and the five kids grow up in that family and they become Republicans and then each of the five kids have five kids and they all become Republicans because they’re raised that way. We generally move toward the opinions of our parents, politically, and that sort of thing.

In the 1970s and the ’60s, the Democratic Party was very viable. We had Democratic governors, we had Democratic majorities in the Legislature a couple of times, not often, but there was one point when we only had two members of Congress, two congressional districts, and then the two senators, where Democrats held three of the four positions in the congressional delegation. One of the two senators and both congressmen.

I just don’t see a path going forward. Now the Democrats have a pretty good candidate and a shot for the 4th Congressional District in Ben McAdams. Ben McAdams is a rarity now, but back in the ’60s and the ’70s, there were a lot of people like him. What I’m saying is he’s a practicing Mormon, a devout Mormon, true to his faith and he’s a liberal Democrat. That’s almost unheard of anymore, but in the ’60s and the ’70s that was real common.

It seemed the Democrats and the Republicans back in those days, they had their fights. And sometimes they could get pretty nasty but generally they seemed to have more respect for each other and more respect for the two-party system than they have now.

Wood: Do you think that it’s candidates in the mold of Ben McAdams that, promoting them would help? Is that their path to relevancy, the [Utah] Democratic Party?

Rolly: Well, I think so. It’s a complicated question because the Democrats, you know, I applaud the Democrats for sticking to their ethics of inclusion and the idea of everybody having their civil rights and equality and everything else. By that, I mean they’ve become identified with the gay-rights movement and everything else, which — good for them. But politically it kills them because of the religion here in Utah. The Mormon church seems to be getting a little more tolerant of the gay community and that sort of thing, but there’s still a stigma there.

The Democratic Party is tied to that and women’s rights, that’s still a problem here in Utah, whether people want to admit it or not. That is a stigma for them politically, it hurts them politically. But at the same time they’re doing, I think, what they should do. We’ll see. I think that Ben McAdams has a chance, but other than him I don’t see the Democrats making many inroads.

You look at the Legislature, you’ve got 13 Democrats in the House out of 75. You’ve got five Democrats in the Senate out of 29, and every single Democrat is from Salt Lake County. There’s not one Democrat outside Salt Lake County, which means Salt Lake County has no voice, basically, or at least Salt Lake City. Every Salt Lake City member of the Legislature is a Democrat, which means they don’t have a seat at the table because all the decisions are made in Republican caucuses. So Salt Lake City, the most significant city in Utah in every way, is left out of the decision-making process.

Wood: Topic No. 2, and obviously there’s going to be some overlap here, but what do you think Utahns should know about the Utah Republican Party?

Rolly: Well the Utah Republican Party is really interesting because it’s about the most dysfunctional organization I can think of. These guys are always fighting with each other, they hate each other. We’re seeing this story — I still say “we,” I’ll always say “we” when I talk about The Tribune — but the story that we had in the paper this morning about this group saying that they got enough people to rescind their signatures on Count My Vote to get it off the ballot.

This is a big fight within the Republican Party. This isn’t a Republican-Democrat fight, this is a Republican vs. Republican fight, and you’ve got these different factions. You’ve got these hardcore people who think that only a small little group of delegates should have the right to pick the nominees for their party and you’ve got, I think, a larger segment of the Republican Party, but not as vocal, believes that system has led to more extreme people running for and then getting [elected].

You know, 90 percent of the races in this state, if you get the Republican nomination, you’re going to win. So it’s a fight over the Republican nomination and there’s the argument that the delegate convention-caucus system leads to more extreme kind of candidates that don’t really represent the average Republican in Utah.

But having said that, the Republican Party, they’ll continue to be very successful in the elections in spite of themselves just because of the political nature in Utah right now.

Wood: When I was a student in college I had a political science professor who always used to say “The two major parties: Republicans are evil and Democrats are stupid.” It kind of sounds like what you’re saying is in Utah, Republicans are disorganized and Democrats are irrelevant.

Rolly: That’s exactly what I’m saying, yes. But the Republicans will continue to win. The argument now is what kind of Republicans are we going to have representing us. I think Utah took a big side step in 2010 when they ousted Robert Bennett, the three-term Republican senator, a strong conservative, very smart guy, very well respected, and got Mike Lee. Now Mike Lee, we’ll see about him. But he went in there with a much more tight and restrictive and conservative agenda. Now, there are exceptions to his record, but he seems and seemed right away to be much more partisan and restrictive as far as reaching over to the other side of the aisle and trying to reach compromises, than Bob Bennett.

Now having said that, Lee has worked with Democrats on prison reform, sentencing reform, and those types of issues. And he’s been applauded for it by Barack Obama, I remember at one point. But he seems much more rigid than Senator Bennett so that’s been a big difference.

Now we’ll see what happens in this [current] Senate race. It looks like Mitt Romney is probably going to win this Senate race. And we’ll see how different he’s going to be from Orrin Hatch. Orrin Hatch, for many many years, he’s obviously a very significant senator, he’s been a very important person in Washington for a long time. But when Bob Bennett got ousted and it was largely because of the tea party movement in 2010, Orrin Hatch paid attention and it seems like he’s taken a sharp turn to the right, a sharp turn to being real partisan and that sort of thing.

He’s done some things that I personally found pretty disappointing. I thought it was downright sleazy the way they wouldn’t even have a hearing on [Supreme Court nominee] Merrick Garland and Orrin Hatch was in the middle of that. And then they changed the rules so they don’t have to get to the 60-vote threshold to get their own guy in once Trump was president.

There’s a dishonesty there and it’s too bad because Hatch, before 2010, I thought had done some really good things. He worked with Ted Kennedy across the aisle to get some really significant things done like on children’s health insurance and things like that.

Wood: Let’s go to topic No. 3. What should Utahns know about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Rolly: Well, I mean, it’s the most important institution in the state of Utah, in every aspect: politically, culturally, economically. It drives the discussion, it drives the opinion if the church takes a position on an issue. The church tries to be neutral on a lot of things, but there are certain things the church will weigh in on when it thinks there’s a moral issue or something that they feel like they need to weigh in on. But if they take a position on something, you can bet that they’ll win. They’ll get their way, either in a public vote on an initiative, or in the Legislature making laws.

Jack Gallivan, the great publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune for many, many years, he pushed on our editorial pages for liquor-by-the-drink back in the ’60s. It was a tourism issue for him. It was to get Utah in the game with tourism because we had so many great resources here. He got it on the ballot as an initiative and the second the Mormon church came out publicly opposing it, it started out being very popular and as soon as the church said they were opposed to it, it was dead in the water. Mr. Gallivan used to joke about how he fought the church, and the church won.

But he also got along very well with the leaders of the LDS Church, which was a win-win for everybody. With him being the publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune and then the church owning the Deseret News, and Mr. Gallivan was very good friends with [the late LDS Church President] Thomas Monson for example. That relationship was good for everybody, I think.

Wood: Let’s go to topic No. 4. What do you think Utahns should know about The Salt Lake Tribune?

Rolly: Well, I’m obviously very biased. The Tribune has been my life, my whole adult life it’s been my identity and I’ve loved it here. I love The Tribune and I love its legacy and I love everything about it. We’ve gone through our tough times. We were owned by a viper hedge fund for a while, which was hard. But I’m glad that we’re back to being owned by a local owner who cares about this community. I hope; I can’t say with a lot of confidence what’s going to happen.

Obviously there are all these forces that have been really devastating for print newspapers, through no fault of their own. But I hope The Tribune can survive, I know all the people here, my colleagues down here, we’ve got a great staff and they’re great journalists. I hope that we can survive but there’s some really tough obstacles to get over now, economically, to keep that going.

If The Tribune ever went under, and the only voice in this city was the Deseret News, I think that would be a very sad day.

Wood: You worked under a lot of owners, a lot of editors. What would you say was the strongest era journalistically — capital J journalism — for The Tribune?

Rolly: The ’70s and under Jack Gallivan, we had a lot of pride. Art Deck was our editor for a long time, and he was a tough guy, he was real tough, everybody was afraid of him. But his motto was “Get it first and get it right.” They didn’t tolerate mistakes very well.

I’m not so sure that there was such an emphasis on investigative reporting back then, as there is now with the great job The Tribune did in the last couple years and winning the Pulitzer Prize. But there was a real emphasis on getting the news and getting it right and getting it out there.

Because of necessity, because of staff reductions and everything else, we don’t do this anymore, but we covered every city council meeting, every school board meeting. The idea was that you’re busy with your family, you’re busy with your job, you’re busy with whatever you’re doing, so you can’t go to the city council meeting to see what decision is going to be made that affects you. So we’re there to go to that meeting for you and tell you what they did and tell you how it’s going to affect you. I think that was a great time at The Tribune.

I think in recent times it’s been great. We won a Pulitzer Prize. I wasn’t part of the team that did that, but I wear that with pride as being part of the paper that did that. But if you want me to say a specific time, at least in my career, those days were great days back in the late ’70s and ’80s.

Wood: You’ve been working in newspapers for a long time. You’ve seen trends, and good times and bad times. For the last topic, what do you think Utahns should know about the media generally?

Rolly: I hope they understand how badly they need an independent media for their own good, for their own freedom. It’s been very disheartening to see the attacks that the media has been under, particularly since Donald Trump rose to prominence, politically.

This idea of fake news, that’s just a ploy to try and convince people that when the media uncovers things that politicians don’t want the public to know, they can just brush it off by saying “fake news.” Unfortunately they seem to get away with that quite a bit.

I think of some of the great people I worked with in the past: Jack Gallivan and Art Deck was the editor in the 1970s and Will Fehr and Jerry O’Brien and I loved their commitment to what we’re supposed to do as journalists and the important role that we have to play.

The thing about those guys is every one of those people, they were the leaders of The Tribune but The Tribune was always bigger than them. They always understood that. It was never about them. It was about this higher goal and this important role and they took it seriously.

And it just bugs me when I hear all these people talking about journalists who are trained to go out and find the truth and try and write objective stories and everything else as being fake news and then actually believing the crap that they see on social media where somebody just, you know, throws some idea out and pretends it’s a story.

The next thing you know people are passing it around. And now we’re finding out that everybody was manipulated that way by people who were really trying to get phony ideas out there to meet a political agenda.

Wood: Last question, Paul, what do you think you’ll miss the most?

Rolly: I’m going to miss my colleagues. I’ve gotten used to losing colleagues because people have retired. I’ve gone through two or three generations of Tribune staffs now. And so I’m always going to miss my colleagues.

I’m going to miss the excitement of the scoop, of the story, of getting the story. I’m going to miss the excitement of being able to dig something out that powerful people don’t want anybody to know about and exposing it. That always was fun for me.

I’m going to have to get used to not having some kind of story like that to look forward to. Reading the paper this morning, already, I started thinking “Goll, I’d sure like to opine on that, or opine on this.” I’m going to have to get used to being out of that game.

Wood: Paul Rolly, thank you for your years of service, and for joining us today.

Rolly: Hey, thank you very much.

Wood: In addition to Paul Rolly, the Tribune staff laid off include: Anna Cekola, Steve Hunt, Pamela Manson, Gordon Harman, Ellen Weist, Al Hartmann, Emma Penrod, Bob Mims, Chris Smart, Mariah Noble, Mike Gorrell, Mark Hansen, Lillian Reed, Frances Moody, Curt Gresseth, Jay Drew, Scott Sommerdorf, Isabel Dobrin, Lynn Worthy, Ed Oberbeck, Nick Parker, Michelle Quist, Bill Dentzer, Tiffany Caldwell, Steve Griffin, Luke Ramseth, Ty Cobb, Francisco Arrieta, Rich Kane, Aubrey Wieber, Phil Lewis, Kevin Morriss and Daniella Birch.

“Trib Talk” is produced by Sara Weber, with additional editing by Dan Harrie. Special thanks to Smangarang for the theme music to this week’s episode. We welcome your comments and feedback on sltrib.com, or you can send emails to tribtalk@sltrib.com. You can also tweet to me @BjaminWood or to the show @TribTalk on Twitter.

We’ll be back next week, thanks for listening.