There likely won’t be a Democratic candidate on the ballot in the Sandy area’s Senate District 9 this year — and the reason why comes down to who’s considered a “physician” under Utah code.
A few days after Senate District 9 candidate Abigail Wright stepped aside on May 18, her physician assistant sent a letter to Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen that said a family health issue would “make it very difficult for Abigail to continue running for office.”
Utah’s election code says the state central committee of a party can submit a name to fill a vacancy if the original candidate resigns “because of acquiring a physical or mental disability as certified by a physician.”
But the lieutenant governor’s office said in a statement Thursday that the definition of “physician” in state code does not include physician assistants. Therefore, the office “does not believe that any letters submitted to this point by Ms. Wright or medical professionals on her behalf” meet those requirements.
That means any candidate who tries to fill the Democratic vacancy in the race to replace Senate President Wayne Niederhauser could be challenged, the office said.
“The law is very clear,” Justin Lee, the director of elections in the lieutenant governor’s office, told The Salt Lake Tribune.
After they heard the Democratic State Central Committee planned to meet Wednesday to nominate a replacement for Wright, Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson and Salt Lake County Republican Party Chairman Scott Miller wrote an email complaint to the lieutenant governor’s office. In that letter, they asked state election officials to tell the Democrats “that their election is not valid, and will not be recognized as it fails to meet the standards set forth in Utah election code.”
A few hours later, Democratic Party insiders decided not to vote officially on the issue — but chose Monica Zoltanski as an unofficial candidate for the district just in case.
“I support Monica Zoltanski, the presumptive nominee in filling the vacancy and my hope is that this matter can be resolved in a way that provides the voters in Senate District 9 with a Democratic candidate on the ballot,” Wright said in a written statement.
Q. Dang, Salt Lake County Democratic Executive Committee chairman, acknowledged that the door to getting a Democrat on the ballot is most likely closed. But he said he’s holding out hope that Wright could provide the lieutenant governor’s office with information that would change its stance before the certification deadline.
If Wright obtained and submitted a letter to the county clerk from a certified physician, Lee said, “that would certainly be different than what we’re talking about now,” but he noted that there would still be questions about whether that documentation should have been submitted at the time of Wright’s withdrawal.
Dang said that while he respects the opinion of the lieutenant governor’s office, he sees the Republican Party’s complaint as a political move. He said it was “actively trying to block something that hasn’t even happened yet,” since the committee ultimately decided not to nominate a candidate.
“They weren’t concerned with the process, they just didn’t want a challenge to a race," he said. "And that’s not democratic in my book.”
While Anderson believes placing a Democrat on the ballot “at the eleventh hour” would put Republican candidate Kirk Cullimore Jr. at a disadvantage, he denied that the complaint was politically motivated.
“Our platform says we abide by the rule of law," he said, “and I think it’s important that we do so.”