Utah’s tax referendum backers hope to oust the speaker with a long shot candidate

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) Utah Speaker of the House Brad Wilson speaks on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

January was a heady time for the group that sprang up to oppose Utah’s massive tax reform package. These citizen activists successfully leveraged social media to collect more than 117,000 signatures to put the measure to a public vote in November. Knowing they were defeated, lawmakers decided to repeal the bill they had approved in a special session just one month earlier.

It was impressive.

The group then harnessed its newfound political muscle this summer to help businessman Chris Wilson oust Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, in the June GOP primary. Hillyard became their target for sponsoring the tax reform bill. The group once again used social media to coordinate volunteers who campaigned for Wilson and they helped end Hillyard’s 40-year legislative career.

After claiming those two political scalps, organizers eagerly turned their sights on the November general election.

“If there is any candidate that supported our referendum effort, those are the people we want to help,” said Judy Weeks Rohner, one of the group’s leaders.

Curiously, the only two legislative races they’ve decided to get involved in so far are incredible long shots.

They are trying to oust House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. Wilson does not have a Democratic challenger. So, instead, the tax reformers are getting behind United Utah Party nominee Ammon Gruwell.

“We took out Hillyard, there’s no reason we can’t defeat the speaker of the House,” Rohner said.

Easier said than done. Wilson has won every election since 2012 with at least 77% of the vote.

Despite the long odds, Gruwell says he has welcomed the help.

“On multiple occasions, they’ve advocated for my campaign and asked group members to call friends and family who live in the district,” he says. “They’ve also allowed me to use their private Facebook group to solicit donations or volunteers, something they’ve only allowed a few candidates to do.”

Gruwell adds his campaign manager was one of the original leaders of the tax referendum effort, and she acts as a liaison between them and his campaign.

The other lawmaker in the group’s crosshairs is Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. Weiler’s only opponent is write-in candidate Marci Green Campbell, who he defeated in convention for the Republican nomination. Green Campbell was an early volunteer for the referendum and later became a primary organizer in the South Davis area.

“They’re absolutely helping me,” says Green Campbell. “A write-in campaign is a grassroots effort just like the tax referendum was.”

She says she’s been able to recruit a few dozen volunteers who have assisted with knocking on doors and putting up signs.

Wilson and Weiler did not respond to a request for comment.

It would be easy to assume the grassroots group is a burgeoning political force in Utah politics, but it’s just as likely they captured lightning in a bottle with the referendum. The effort to increase the sales tax on food galvanized their opposition and brought several disparate groups, including liberals and conservatives, and even the Harmons grocery store chain, together. An oft-repeated joke among political watchers during the January 2020 session was “they were able to get a bag of cats to agree on one thing.”

While shocking, the Hillyard defeat was only possible because he faced a primary challenger. If they had waited until Hillyard earned the Republican nomination, it is highly unlikely that he would have lost in such a conservative district.

To that end, one of the group’s main foes, House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, remained out of their reach. Gibson was the House sponsor of the tax reform bill and served on the tax reform committee. He’s running unopposed.

So far, the reform group has aimed big instead of targeting tight races. While some districts haven’t been competitive in years, others were decided by razor-thin margins in 2018, which means they very well could be close this year too.

Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, was a yes vote on the tax bill and is facing a stiff challenge from Democrat Ashlee Matthews. Hutchings survived in 2018 by just 118 votes.

Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, defeated his Democratic opponent by 553 votes in 2018. A third-party representative on the ballot that year was able to capture just under 6% support from voters, which likely played a big role in that race.

First term incumbent Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden is facing a very stiff fight from Democrat Oscar Mata for the seat that covers the eastern edge of Ogden and a large portion of Weber County. Waldrip won in 2018 by just 214 votes.

Other House Republicans who voted for the tax bill and might be in trouble this year include Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan; Rep. Steve Christiansen, R-West Jordan; and Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven.

The successful referendum effort showed that, while rare, a group of energized voters can make an impact in politics. Whether they’ll have a similar impact come November remains to be seen.