Utah minorities should register Republican in the primary to push police reforms, says former GOP leader

(Lennie Mahler | Tribune file photo) In this Jan. 4, 2015, file photo, then-Utah GOP Chairman James Evans speaks at a news conference at Utah Republican Party headquarters in Salt Lake City.

First there was old-school Democrat Kem Gardner, a developer, trying to persuade Utahns of all political stripes to register as Republican to participate in the upcoming primary for governor.

Then liberal Democrat Jim Dabakis, a former state senator and Democratic Party chairman, was calling on Democrats to switch so they could have a say in picking the next governor, given that Utah voters haven’t elected a Democrat to the post in 40 years.

Now former Utah GOP Chairman James Evans, the only African American ever elected to that post, is mounting an effort to sway people of color to register in the GOP and vote in the primary. Evans, though, says his effort is different — it’s not about party, but for the cause of police reform.

“This is a unique opportunity to perhaps determine the next governor of Utah so that we can get some serious police reform and address some of the systemic inequities here in the state,” Evans said. “But this can only happen if minorities show up and participate in the primary.”

He says the response so far has “been impressive," mostly among unaffiliated voters but also others. “The motivation this time around is they are demanding change, and I’m saying this is how we get it.”

Alex Stewart-Johnson, 21, of Provo, is one of those who has spoken with Evans and is trying to push the registration drive among minority youth. Stewart-Johnson is one of the founders of a nonprofit backing efforts to persuade young adults to register as Republican and vote as well as ensure that the elected candidates follow through with action on police reform.

So far, he said, there hasn’t been much said about the issue by the four Republican gubernatorial candidates. “We hope we hear from the candidates about their plan as far as systemic discrimination, as well as police reform.”

Evans says he, too, wants the candidates to lay out their plans for “fundamental law enforcement reform” and an end to “systemic discrimination in Utah." He is optimistic they will address it during a Tuesday night debate hosted by KUTV and the Pioneer Park Coalition beginning at 7 p.m.

He declined to say what specific reforms he favors.

“I don’t have a demand for what that ultimate outcome should look like. My demand is that they address the issue.”

This primary presents a unique chance for a bloc of voters united around a cause to have influence, he said, because it is the first gubernatorial primary with more than two candidates. That means the winner out of the four hopefuls — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright — will be decided by a relatively small margin — likely by less than a majority.

A longtime and devoted Republican himself, Evans hopes that minority voters registering as Republican now will stay with the party, not switch back to unaffiliated or Democrat after the primary. “But it’s going to be up to Republicans how they respond” to the demand for fundamental reforms to root out discrimination and police abuse, he said.

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board.