The new Utah Republican chairman talks about party unity, Democratic ‘socialism’ and paying the phone bill

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) 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.

For several weeks, calls to Utah Republican Party’s Salt Lake City headquarters have been met with a busy signal after the party’s phone line was cut.

Former party Chairman Rob Anderson made no secret of the organization’s financial struggles after years of ideological infighting, litigation and a fundraising drought. And now one week since the election of a new chairman, Derek Brown, a fresh leadership team looks to rebuild Utah’s dominant political apparatus, starting with the utilities.

“It sounds like the phone bill wasn’t paid and I think that they were really light on staff — and by ‘light,’ I mean there’s no one on staff at the moment,” Brown said. “We’re not only turning the phones back on, but turning the lights back on for the party. That should be a signal to people that the party is back in business.”

Brown’s victory Saturday was decisive, with the former state lawmaker beating back three opponents on a single round of delegate voting. Widely seen as the more moderate candidate, Brown’s election — plus a full turnover of elected party officer positions — was described as a “clean slate” by Anderson and “a new beginning” by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

While Republicans maintain an overwhelming political advantage in the state, the 2018 election saw its grasp of the Beehive State slip as Democrats made some inroads. Former Republican Rep. Mia Love was defeated by Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, the state House and Senate majorities contracted slightly and Democratic candidates achieved a near-sweep of Salt Lake County offices.

With the 2020 elections rapidly approaching, The Salt Lake Tribune caught up with Brown to discuss his plans to regain lost seats, his convention remarks on Democratic socialism and the future of the Utah Republican Party.

[Editor’s note: The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. In some cases, a paragraph break indicates where portions of a response were removed.]

Benjamin Wood: Beyond literally turning the lights back on, what is on your short term to-do list for the Utah Republican Party?

Derek Brown: One of my first items is to reach out to get to know every one of our county chairs. We have 29 county chairs. I believe 26 of them have now been selected and one of the first things I’ll do is reach out to every one of our chairs, get to know them, understand what their unique needs and circumstances are and then how the state party can be a resource for each of them.

Another thing is we’ll be meeting [as newly elected officers]. We have a new team, and we’ve got a lot of planning and organization to do. I’m the old guy on the team, funny enough. I didn’t realize that until people were taking pictures of the four of us.

[Brown is 47.]

I think the selection of a very young, millennial crowd as part of the team signals the fact that the party as a whole is focused on how we reach out to a younger generation and how we get them activated and involved in the political process. I think this is the delegates effectively saying the best way to do that is to have a leadership team that doesn’t just know how to message to that crowd but is part of them — is one of them.

BW: I saw a video of a meet-the-candidates panel you participated in before the convention. The first question from the audience was about an Article V convention of states. Your answer was interesting, you kind of sent the question back and suggested that type of debate is driving people away from the party.

Could you elaborate on that? How do you convince 600,000 Utah Republicans to stop focusing on litmus tests?

DB: I had a lot of those questions during the campaign and they were questions on specific policy issues. What I tried to do is bring it back to the issue of the role of the chair. What is that role? The role of the chair is not to make a determination on whether we should, as a state, support an Article V convention or whether one particular candidate is the right type of candidate.

Whenever I got a question about a substantive policy issue I always put it back on the delegates and said, ‘This is your responsibility and mine is to make sure that once you’ve done your job I get those candidates across the finish line.’ So in terms of your question about unifying everyone and unifying the hundreds of thousands of Republicans, the best way to do it is to create an atmosphere where there is an acknowledgment that they may all feel differently on different issues. But it’s their responsibility to work with their elected officials or their candidates to get them selected. And then once they’ve done their job, mine is to complete the task by getting them elected.

BW: Recently, I’ve been checking in on the unofficial discussion group on Facebook for Utah Republicans. A post caught my eye where someone suggested there was a radio frequency jammer at the convention, and comments that it could have interfered with the vote count.

What’s your message to members of the party who didn’t expect you to win or who aren’t in your corner yet? And was there a radio frequency jammer that helped you secure your victory?

DB: OK, on that the answer is no, there was no such thing. As far as reaching out to individuals or what message, I would say that as a party we are united.

If there was one message to me from the delegates, it was to reach out to all the different elements of our party and make them feel welcome and understood. And, truthfully, that’s what I’ve spent the better part of this week doing — having conversations with specific individuals who may not have been happy about the election results, but a conversation with them about the fact that I am willing to sit down and listen to their concerns and understand their point of view and that their point of view is welcome.

BW: During your remarks at convention, you, like many others, brought up this idea of the Democratic Party moving toward socialism. What specifically were you referring to?

DB: My comments were general and they were referring to a general movement or trend. None of us planned this but I think all of us, the federal delegation as well, made reference to it. More than anything it’s a general reference to a trend toward the acceptance of socialism as a better approach to allocating resources than the free market.

BW: Where do you see that trend manifested in the Democratic Party?

DB: I see a trend toward candidates and elected officials who view socialism as preferable to a free-market approach.

BW: It made me wonder about a particular line in the Utah Republican Party platform. The section on human services talks about responsibility being on the individual, the family, and voluntary charitable organizations. The next line says, “We recognize, however, that there are special social needs which must be addressed through state human service programs.”

For someone who is outside of both major parties and they hear Republican leaders talking about socialism, are they not right to wonder about public education, highways, Medicaid, Medicare, and other things that seem to be palatable to Republicans?

DB: Ultimately, Republicans as a group believe that there is a very unique and important role that government plays, particularly in helping those who are most vulnerable among us. And so the question is one of degree and whether that should be the exception or the norm.

As a party, we may have legitimate differences as to how to apply that principle. But I think there is a general consensus that it is the role of government to help those [who are vulnerable].

BW: Let’s look ahead to 2020. What is the Derek Brown strategy for winning Utah’s 4th Congressional District and taking back the state House and Senate seats that flipped to Democrats?

DB: Number one is having the resources to do it. Number two is having an organizational structure that provides the candidates the resources they need. I believe in the past we haven’t had the resources to provide candidates the backup and the assistance they need to win elections. And that manifests itself in the loss of countywide races in Salt Lake County and then state House and Senate races in Salt Lake County and Weber. And of course losing the 4th District seat by 692 votes.

My main focus will be, over the next several months, to ensure that the party has the resources that they need to win the seats back. And at the same time we will be building the organizational structure that will be able to assist the candidates and do the things that a party should be doing.

BW: Your predecessor was recently censured by the Republican State Central Committee. On a scale of one to 10, how much are you looking forward to your first SCC meeting?

DB: Ten! Because they are are all going to be friends. I am working with them, getting to know them now and have had productive conversations. I think the dynamics that were at play with my predecessor are mostly gone. And I believe that because a lot of them have already reached out and expressed a willingness to work with me and focus on winning elections. So I’m anxious and excited to work with them.

BW: We’ve been following the Riverton City Council, which recently passed an anti-abortion resolution. There’s been some discussion of whether or not that’s appropriate for a nonpartisan, municipal body.

Is this a line in the sand that Republicans at all levels of government should be drawing? In zoning commissions, school boards or mosquito abatement districts?

DB: I’m going to have to punt on that because I really, honestly, have not really followed it. I’ve been buried the last couple days and I’ve only seen a couple of headlines, I think in The Trib, on that issue.

And I’m going to punt more than once because the reality is as a [party] chair I’m not going to be speaking very often at all on substantive policy because I just feel like that’s not my role.

I just don’t feel like it’s appropriate for the [party] chair to be taking a position one way or the other. I think it’s unfair to the members of the party and it’s outside my job description. I’ve served as a legislator and I’m no longer a legislator, I’m a party chair. And so my answer on issues like abortion or constitutional conventions is just going to be different.

BW: One last open question. Is there anything we haven’t talked about or anything else on your to-do list you’d want to mention?

DB: You didn’t ask ask me if people were happy to leave the convention early. You must have been happy.

BW: I had a bag full of granola bars. I was ready.

DB: You were ready for like a 12-hour marathon?

BW: Yes.

DB: I had people who complained that they feel like it ended too abruptly, like it was sort of anticlimactic and they were hoping for fireworks and streamers or screaming or something to indicate that it was over.

Maybe in terms of your open-ended question, [at convention] I used the phrase “making the Republican Party more user-friendly” and that’s one of my overall goals. I want it to be user-friendly, I want it to be a party that everyone feels welcome in, and one that people want to be part of. And a 12-hour convention, if that’s part of being a delegate, it’s going to be very hard to recruit delegates. That’s why I want to streamline that process and make it shorter and more enjoyable and the kind of thing that people enjoy attending, to the extent that’s possible.