[Update: Salt Lake County GOP chairman resigns amid criticism]
A few weeks before the 2020 election, Salt Lake County Council candidate Laurie Stringham created a campaign video for donors.
Stringham was proud of the minute-long production, made with her shoestring budget, she said. It poked fun at what she viewed as the county’s excessive spending, with a slap at the opposing party.
“Support Laurie Stringham for Salt Lake County Council, so when Mayor [Jenny] Wilson says ‘more, more, more,’ we can say ‘no, no, no,’” Stringham says in the recording.
Hours after the video went out on Sept. 15, Stringham said, she was driving her teenage son to a meet a friend when she got a call from Dave Robinson, the county Republican Party’s unofficial communication director.
“You sound like you’re having an orgasm!” Stringham said he yelled at her over her car’s speakerphone. She said he repeated her “more, more, more” catchphrase with obscene grunting sounds.
“He tells me if I want to ‘wh--- myself out,’ that is my choice,” Stringham said.
But what rattled Stringham most, she said, were the threats she said Robinson made.
“‘I will make sure you never get elected! I will ruin you! And I will make sure the party never works with you! Get your sh-- together!’” Stringham recounted Robinson saying. “Then he hung up on me. The call lasted just over two minutes, but scared the hell out of me.”
Stringham’s story is just one example of a toxic, bullying culture that existed over the past campaign season for the county’s Republican women, according to interviews with several high-ranking members of the party as well as dozens of emails and text messages from the past six months that were shared with The Salt Lake Tribune.
The women said they experienced body-shaming and scrutiny of their appearance by Robinson, who is gay. He called men and women, but mostly women, degrading nicknames, they said, and refused to stop when asked. Some women said he withheld important campaign resources unless they wrote opinion pieces about his pet issues.
“He uses demeaning, derogatory and sexual terms for females, period. But he also does it for men, too. It’s just that he, in my experience, is more aggressive toward women,” said Erin Preston, a former candidate for county recorder. “Some of his comments get pretty graphic and potentially damaging to good people, both men and women.”
Women interviewed for this story said they raised their concerns with party leadership, including Salt Lake County Republican Party Chair Scott Miller. But they said as far as they know, nothing was done.
“It doesn’t feel like anyone in leadership acknowledges how hard it hits,” Preston said. “When I go to county officials and say, ‘This is what he’s saying, I’m not comfortable,’ the standard response is ‘Oh, that’s just Dave.’”
Miller was dismissive about the allegations in an interview with The Tribune. “So apparently you’re interested in the internal squabbling of our party,” Miller said. “It’s squabbling — that’s what it is.”
Miller is now running for the state Republican chair in the wake of current chair Derek Brown’s recent announcement that he would not seek a second term. The Tribune questioned him and Robinson in a 2½-hour interview on Thursday.
In response, Miller sent out a scathing rebuke on the county party’s official email late Friday naming all of the women coming forward and questioning the true motivation behind what he described as “these salacious accusations.”
“Are these persons and possibly their special interest backers attempting to embarrass and cancel me and our volunteers,” Miller asked in part. “Are most of the accusers sore losers who failed to win their respective races? Is this an attempt to disrupt my efforts to become the Utah GOP Chairman?”
And suggesting it was a case of cancel culture run amok, Miller wrote, “I will not be CANCELLED.”
The email drew intense backlash on Saturday. Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson issued a news release condemning the county party email.
“We are deeply offended by the recent reprehensible communications to Salt Lake County delegates. Let us be clear: This type of behavior should never happen and when it does we will not tolerate it, ignore it, or explain it away. It is unacceptable. The Republican Party needs women in our policymaking and discussions. Sincere apologies are owed to the women who have been victimized and we admire their courage and strength in coming forward. That is not an easy thing to do.”
Salt Lake County Republican representatives issued a statement calling for Miller’s resignation.
“The allegations from multiple women should have been taken seriously and handled swiftly,” reads the statement. “The County Party Chair did the opposite. In addition, he maligned each of these women in an email to Republicans throughout the state and county. Such behavior by the County Party Chair is absolutely unacceptable, and he should resign.”
The statement says its 15 signees are grateful to the women who came forward and shared their experiences.
Brown, the state GOP chairman, also issued a news release calling the allegations “appalling.”
He said the email Miller sent out to Republicans “read as an attempt to shield both he and Robinson from forthcoming allegations of bullying, intimidation, and harassment that they knew would soon be made public” in the Tribune article published Saturday afternoon.
“Ironically, his statement proceeded to bully, intimidate, and harass individual women, by name, not only substantiating their allegations, but perhaps providing a public example of what they may have experienced privately.”
Brown called on the county party’s executive committee “to immediately meet and address these allegations in a way that ensures this never happens again.”
Earlier on Saturday afternoon, Miller sent out another county party email with a starkly different tone and message than the previous one.
“I applaud these women for coming forward and I have encouraged any accusers to come forward. I take these allegations seriously. I want to be very clear, I do not and will not tolerate sexual harassment, sexual assault, etc.”
He said he is proposing a new harassment policy for the county party be enacted immediately to provide a clear path for an investigation, protection of those bringing forward allegations and a fair process for resolution.
The current chorus of allegations against Robinson and Miller’s defense of him had their roots in that September phone call from Robinson to Stringham that left her rattled.
She called Miller after Robinson hung up, she said. “I started sobbing into the phone and asked Scott if he was really not going to work with me anymore,” Stringham said. She said Miller assured her Robinson didn’t have the kind of power he threatened.
“He then explained that Dave gets like this sometimes. It is just how Dave is,” she said.
Miller told her she needed “to have thick skin when it comes to these things,” she said. “Sure what he said was inappropriate,” Stringham recalled Miller saying, “but you will need to continue working with Dave if you want to win your race.”
In an interview, Miller confirmed that Stringham told him Robinson called her a wh---, but denied hearing about threats. He said because Stringham continued working with him on the campaign, he considered the matter resolved.
Robinson said he was quoting criticisms other people had shared with him about the video when he called Stringham.
“I said the only way — what was it? — something about the only way that’s a good sound is from a wh--- on State Street, something like that,” he said in an interview.
He said he also complained about the grammar and the writing in an email accompanying the video, telling Stringham it “looked like it was written by a fourth grader.”
Three other Republican women confirmed Stringham shared her story with them soon after the call. One was Abby Evans, who previously volunteered and worked for Stringham’s campaign, and now serves as her policy adviser on the County Council.
“She immediately drove to my house” after the calls with Robinson and Miller, Evans said. “She was shaking, she was upset, she was visibly distraught.”
Name-calling and body-shaming
Like Stringham, Preston, the former Republican candidate for recorder, is a single mom who was grateful to have the support of the county party in her campaign, at least at first, she said. But she soon became suspicious of Robinson’s motives.
“The first time we met to go over my campaign, he walks up and says ‘nice t--s, nice a--, are those new?’” Preston recalled. She said she also personally heard Robinson call women in the party “slut,” “fatty” and “sloppy seconds.”
Preston said she is accustomed to crude language in her job as an attorney and initially tried to ignore Robinson’s remarks.
“But the treatment that came after,” she said, “I certainly felt was demeaning and abusive at some points.”
Robinson discouraged Preston from reaching out to her own contacts in local media, text messages shared with The Tribune show, often using disparaging nicknames for reporters and columnists, most of them women.
He helped Preston set up a campaign website, but would not provide her access, which Miller and Robinson confirmed. In August, she emailed Robinson and asked him to remove language that mocked her opponent’s appearance and claimed that “there are some who view her as a ‘Barbie doll,’” Preston said.
Preston said Robinson was “trying to control the message” of her campaign. He wrote opinion pieces in her name about gay discrimination from homeowners’ associations, which she refused to have published, she said. Preston learned Robinson had attached himself to an HOA lawsuit where, in a counterclaim, he alleged he was personally being harassed for being gay. A judge dismissed the claim earlier this month.
“He kept trying to push his homeowner’s association case into any press message about my campaign — always without my permission,” Preston said.
He also pushed Preston to focus on issues involving Big and Little Cottonwood canyons as part of her campaign, she said, but she didn’t see a connection to the recorder’s office that she felt would be worthwhile.
Robinson previously worked as a consultant for landowners there. “It seemed like he had a personal stake, but we never knew. None of us really know what he does for work,” Preston said. “Everything he does is cloaked in secrecy.”
Robinson’s role at the Salt Lake County Republican Party is unpaid.
Preston shared numerous emails and text messages she said she sent to party leadership in September and October outlining her concerns.
“I need Dave Robinson away from my campaign and out of my life,” she texted vice chair Scott Rosenbush on Sept. 24.
On Oct. 2, she texted the chair and vice chair that she had received no help from Robinson but “constant criticism ... and a whole lot of toxic conversations that have wasted my time and emotional energy.”
She added that even after firing Robinson, she still had no control over her campaign website, leading her to fear retaliation.
Rosenbush occasionally replied with advice, text messages shared with The Tribune show, but Robinson’s harassing behavior continued, Preston said, even after she told him to stop contacting her. She said she never received a response from Miller.
Miller told The Tribune he reviewed Preston’s claims and decided there was nothing to pursue. “Every email that we read that was submitted to us is what goes on in a normal campaign,” he said.
Robinson agreed to stop contacting Preston for the rest of her campaign, Miller added, so he assumed there was no further issue.
Asked whether he made inappropriate comments about women’s bodies, Robinson said he criticizes his own appearance in disparaging ways. He also brought up his family background in ranching.
“Keep in mind, I come from a very, very, very high level of judging horses and livestock and being very critical. OK, I have a critical eye,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean that I’m degrading an individual.”
Other women complained about Robinson
Republican women say Robinson’s problematic behavior went beyond the 2020 county elections.
Lisa Bagley, who was campaigning for a seat in the Utah Legislature, told The Tribune she also became uncomfortable when Robinson exerted control over her website and tried to make her campaign messages focused on his own pet issues.
“He said, ‘You’re either all in or all out’ with his messaging, and his messaging is very much his agenda,” Bagley said.
Bagley decided she was all out, and told Robinson she was going to hire a consultant to manage her campaign. Robinson then sent Bagley what she called a “bizarre” email accusing her of being a shill for wealthy lobbyists.
“It was very unprofessional and really, a side punch in the gut. The way he backtracked on it was, ‘This is what I would have sent if I was your opponent,’” Bagley said. “Who needs enemies when you have someone dumping like this in my own party?”
Kim Coleman, a former state lawmaker who ran an unsuccessful primary campaign against Burgess Owens to represent the 4th Congressional District, said Robinson was condescending toward her and said belittling things about her team. She said she frequently heard Robinson use disparaging terms about women’s bodies.
“I was sometimes shocked, sometimes surprised, but I didn’t know it was as widespread as it was,” Coleman said. “When I started hearing things he did to other ladies, I was pretty disturbed.”
Barbara Stallone, who had been involved with the county party for two decades, said she met with Robinson at a restaurant during his campaign for county mayor in 2016. The meeting abruptly ended when Robinson shouted at her friend after he offered campaign advice, Stallone said, and then told Stallone she didn’t deserve his time.
As she attempted to leave, Stallone said, Robinson physically blocked the exit. She said she had to push past him to get away.
“I don’t like men who use their physical strength to bully women. I find that horrifying. I was shaking badly,” she said.
Robinson said he first met Stallone in 2018, but the friend who joined her in the 2016 meeting confirmed Stallone’s account.
In 2018, when Miller was considering appointing Robinson as communications director for the party, Stallone said she privately shared her concerns with him.
“He basically blew me off and said it’s the chair’s choice,” she said. “I worry we’re out there saying with one mouth that we need more women to run for office, and at the same time we’re allowing them to be treated this way.”
Miller denied that Stallone had spoken to him about Robinson.
Part of the problem, according to some party members, is it’s difficult to share concerns with Miller, the only person who has the authority to remove Robinson. They said they believe Robinson is behind Miller’s emails and communications.
“Scott is someone I supported, I considered a good friend,” said Evans, who was previously employed by the county party. “Ever since he’s gotten into cahoots with Dave, he’s become suspicious, he’s gotten mean. It makes your gut twist a little.”
Miller said Evans was a “woman scorned” because the county party had decided to terminate her to cut costs.
‘Bullies need to be called out’
Aimee Winder Newton, a Republican County Council member, publicly spoke out against Robinson in 2018. It came shortly after Robinson told The Tribune editorial board that high rates of youth suicide in Utah were due to “the lifestyle that the gays are leading,” including too many sexual partners — sometimes running into the thousands.
“This isn’t the first time Scott Miller has allowed Robinson to run amok and enable his bad behavior,” Newton said in an interview. “Miller was afraid to fire Robinson in 2018 and is apparently afraid to get rid of him now.”
Last September, Newton said, she again began raising concerns about Robinson and the negative impact he was having on Republican races, where Democrats had vastly outraised GOP candidates across the board in Salt Lake County.
“Dave is a loose cannon,” she texted Miller. “I have donors who are scared off by Dave Robinson’s involvement in some of the county campaigns.”
Both Miller and Robinson responded to Newton’s texts in a lengthy email.
Newton also asked Miller in a text if he was aware of Robinson name-calling of other candidates. Robinson responded in the email by confirming his belittling names for Newton specifically, including “Aimee eat a burger” and “Which way is the wind blowing Aimee.”
“I certainly haven’t seen anything change,” Newton told The Tribune. “I continue to get harassing emails. I think it’s important for us to recognize a party organization should be held accountable if there’s mistreatment there.”
Newton said she hasn’t spoken to Robinson or responded to messages from him for years.
In January, Robinson wrote at least two long emails to party members rehashing the concerns Newton shared about him months prior. In one of the emails, cowritten by Robinson and Miller, Robinson complained of her “preoccupation” with him, even as she kept ignoring him. He then questioned her sexuality and the sexuality of her family members, according to the email shared with The Tribune.
In another email, he tried to connect Newton to his unsuccessful HOA lawsuit, tying it to her encouragement of other women to come forward with their claims about him.
As women began sharing their complaints about Robinson, Robinson sent several aggressive emails and texts to Republican women, ostensibly to figure out who had leaked information about him. Those messages were shared with The Tribune.
In a text to Stringham, he wrote, “There are also rumblings that a small group of women (whom some refer to as the ‘mean girls’) continues to disrupt and undermine my communications efforts in the county party.”
Robinson sent similar “mean girls” messages to Newton, Preston and Bagley. He also alluded to a defamation lawsuit he claimed to have won, where he cost his detractors millions and “destroyed their family.”
Newton had encouraged other women to tell their stories, she told The Tribune, because “bullies need to be called out.”