Utah Republicans elect Derek Brown as chairman to lead all-new team of GOP officers vowing unity and focus

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) New State Party Chair Derek Brown speaks at the Utah Republican Party's 2019 Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday May 4, 2019.

Orem • The Utah Republican Party’s next chairman will be Derek Brown, following a decisive election victory Saturday at the party’s organizing convention at Utah Valley University where delegates ushered in a complete turnover of elected officers.

Brown, a former state lawmaker who previously worked as deputy chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, earned 62 percent of the delegates’ vote on a single round of voting that included four candidates. Brown’s victory was followed by the elections of Aaron Starks as party vice chairman and Kendra Seeley as party secretary — both of whom defeated incumbent candidates. Michael Bird ran unopposed as party treasurer.

“I think today’s decision by the party, fundamentally, is a decision to not look backward but to look forward to the future,” Brown said, “and to a Republican Party that’s united and together.”

Brown’s win prompted congratulations from Vice President Mike Pence on Twitter. President Donald Trump later retweeted the post, which also credited Utah’s economy to Trump’s leadership.

The four-hour event — remarkably brief for a Utah GOP convention — was a clear sign that the party is ready for a more businesslike, less testy approach. Gov. Gary Herbert praised the move to skip endless debates over “silly issues.”

The party for several years has been engaged in a virtual civil war, with conservative insiders attempting to purify the organization and purge those they believed were less than 100% loyal.

A leader in that effort, Phill Wright, was Brown’s chief opponent in the race for chairman, finishing second with roughly one-third of the delegate vote. While Wright has been viewed by most as a divisive figure, his speech Saturday emphasized unity.

“Let’s extinguish those things that divide us and shorten our lives and let’s always stand for truth," Wright said.

Delegates also opted to remove Lisa Shepherd, the party secretary, in favor of Seeley, who was endorsed on stage by Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox and State Auditor John Dougall. In the lead-up to the convention, Shepherd was accused of being unfit for office by a group of party employees and former interns.

In his convention remarks, Brown described himself as the “keep Utah red guy,” saying the Republican Party’s message is somewhat lost on younger generations, and pointing to conservative setbacks in the Intermountain West and Salt Lake County during the 2018 midterm election.

He said thousands of people are moving to Utah who don’t appreciate conservative principles, and compared the increasingly competitive politics in and around Utah to a canary in a coal mine.

“In Salt Lake County," he said, "the canary died.”

After the vote, Brown said he would prioritize fundraising — the party is roughly $100,000 in debt following years of legal battles and divisive infighting — and outreach to heal divisions among Utah Republicans. He also said there is a need to analyze the party’s 2018 election losses, like the Democratic flip of Utah’s 4th Congressional District, to aid conservative candidates in regaining those seats.

“That is what I will do immediately,” Brown said. “We haven’t taken the time to go back and look at what happened.”

Brown succeeds outgoing chairman Rob Anderson, who declined to seek re-election after a single term leading the party, saying he was not the person to unify the fractious organization. Anderson oversaw a particularly tumultuous era for the state party, with hardline supporters of the traditional caucus and convention system pushing lawsuits against a state law, SB54, that allows candidates to qualify for a party primary by collecting voter signatures.

Outside the courts, county parties took steps to penalize signature-gathering candidates, and Anderson was censured by the party’s State Central Committee for ignoring a bylaw that could have stripped candidates of their party membership for using signature gathering as authorized by SB54.

At the close of Saturday’s convention, a teary-eyed Anderson described the election results as “a clean slate,” and suggested that the Republicans committed to ongoing fighting over SB54 are in the minority in the party.

“Maybe it’s time for a new party for that group,” he said.

Anderson said he wasn’t aware of the “dire circumstances” he’d be facing when he was elected chairman in 2017. He said he was transparent during his term about the challenges facing the organization, and that Brown would be in better position to succeed.

“I think today we saw that people weren’t happy with what was going on behind the scenes,” Anderson said.

Saturday’s convention was completed in under four hours, a remarkably brief event compared to recent conventions. Delegates were originally expected to debate some 30 resolutions, bylaws and changes to the party constitution in addition to electing officers, but all of those procedural items were eliminated from consideration by a majority of vote.

Gov. Herbert, who attended the convention, complimented the focus and tone of the delegates. The governor’s political action committee donated roughly $18,000 to the party to pay for an electronic voting system, and Herbert said it contributed to speed, efficiency and creating a good experience for attendees.

“People want to come here and do the work and then go home and spend time with their families,” Herbert said. “I think you saw an uprising here today that said, ‘You know, we don’t have to have these long, elongated debates on silly issues’.”

On SB54, Herbert said the law was put in place to protect the caucus and convention system, and that it had achieved that purpose. He said it’s unfortunate the law has been so divisive, but that it’s “probably not wise” for the Legislature to attempt a repeal, as some critics have called for.

“The public has embraced the dual-pathway,” he said.

Herbert spoke at the convention, as did Lee, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, and Republican Reps. Chris Stewart and John Curtis.

Most of the speakers criticized a perceived acceptance of socialism among the Democratic Party, with Lee telling delegates that in 2020, Democrats would be “coming for you.”

Stewart, a former U.S. Air Force pilot, remarked that he never expected to fight socialism in the halls of Congress, and said that under Democratic leadership Americans would be prohibited from purchasing private insurance, would have their trucks confiscated and would be forced to remodel their homes and draw power from unreliable sources.

“They’ve not just embraced socialism,” Stewart said of Democrats, “they’ve embraced it and kissed it on the lips and took it home to meet their mommies.”

Cox did not mention socialism in his remarks, but said Americans will one day look back at modern society with contempt for its tolerance of abortion.

“We must stand for the unborn and everyone who does not have a voice,” Cox said.

Cox, who is expected to run for governor in 2020, noted that while registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in Utah, the state has some 500,000 voters who are not affiliated with a political party. He said Republicans need to do a better job explaining the “why” behind their ideology.

“There is no party in the state that can destroy the Republican party — only we can do that and it will happen if we are not united,” he said. “There is a generation out there that we are losing.”