Utah GOP chairman will ignore ‘illegal’ new bylaw — which may help keep Republicans on the ballot

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Rob Anderson gives his speech before the first vote for chairman at the Utah Republican Party Organizing Convention, Saturday, May 19, 2017. He was elected in the second round of voting over Phill Wright.

Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson said Tuesday he is ignoring a new bylaw that calls for the party to expel candidates in some races if they choose to qualify for the ballot by collecting signatures, an option allowed by state law.

His decision may avoid problems that threatened to remove the party from the ballot. But it may lead party ultraconservatives — who want to return to having the caucus-convention system as the only route to the ballot — to try to dump Anderson as chairman.

Anderson sent an email to party members Tuesday saying that a thorough review by him and others concludes the new bylaw is illegal, and the party cannot enact anything that violates state law.

He notes that last month, an ultraconservative minority of the GOP State Central Committee — what he said was “26 percent of the SCC, or 48 of the 717,771 registered Utah Republicans” — pushed through the change at a lightly attended meeting.

“You can’t create a bylaw that violates your own governing documents and state law … and expect it to be upheld,” Anderson said in an interview.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Republican Party chairman Rob Anderson speaks to the membership about his stance on the ongoing lawsuit against SB54 at the Utah Republican Party Central Committee meeting, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017.

He said the rule also violates parliamentary rules used by the party. His email quoted Robert’s Rules of Order, which says any motion adopted that violates the law is null and void.

So Anderson said he will not expel any member of the party for violating the new rule. “None, whatsoever.”

He said that comes after several weeks of legal and parliamentary review. The legal review was done by Stewart Peay, who was voted out as the party’s attorney by ultraconservatives when he warned the new bylaw may be illegal. Anderson said he used Peay as his private attorney for the review.

“I also discussed this with the lieutenant governor’s office, the governor and GOP caucuses in both the House and Senate,” Anderson said. “I told them this was a potential where we were going, and just needed time for a thorough review.”

Phill Wright, a former party vice chairman and a leader of hard-liners, blasted Anderson for ignoring the new bylaw — and said he lacks the authority to ignore it.

“This is another example of Rob being a totalitarian, thinking that he somehow has the authority to undermine the governing authority of the party,” he said. “This is another example of how Rob Anderson feels the rules should apply to everyone but him.”

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Phill Wright gives his speech before the first vote for chairman at the Utah Republican Party Organizing Convention, Saturday, May 19, 2017. He was eliminated in the second round of voting as Rob Anderson was elected the new chairman.

Hard-liners have talked about trying to oust Anderson.

“That would be a Herculean task,” Anderson said. “They’ve got to get 110 people to vote to oust me of the 183 members of the State Central Committee. They don’t have those numbers, so that one is impossible.”

The new bylaw had Democrats, among others, contending that the Republican Party had violated state law and called for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, to impose sanctions. Punishments could have included removing the party from the ballot.

Some legislative Republicans unsuccessfully had pushed a bill to fix problems by banning parties from changing their rules after setting them early in the election cycle.

Of note, Anderson’s email Tuesday was also signed by GOP Vice Chairman Joni Crane and Treasurer Abram Young. Not signing was GOP Secretary Lisa Shepherd, who has been siding with party hard-liners.

Anderson’s decision comes during the week when candidates must file for office and also make final declarations about whether they will gather signatures.

The new rule would have banned signature gathering by GOP candidates in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts, represented by Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart — because those two and others had not declared intent to gather signatures before the new rule was adopted.

The two congressmen this week had GOP candidates file against them who said they intend to gather signatures — which could have ousted them from the party under the new rule. They are Mary Burkett running against Stewart, and Kevin Probasco taking on Bishop.