Robert Gehrke: How Salt Lake County Republicans failed women within their ranks

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

There’s been a concerted push over the last few years to encourage more women to run for elected office, with punchy slogans like “Real women run” and events and training aimed at supporting female candidates.

It’s a worthy endeavor. Despite those efforts, Utah still ranks 40th in the proportion of female representatives at the state legislative level, and women remain underrepresented at other tiers of government, as well.

We got a demonstration of why that’s the case over the last several days, as more than a half dozen Republican women came forward about a toxic, abusive culture perpetuated by the leaders of the Salt Lake County Republican Party.

As my colleague Leia Larsen reported, the party’s communications consultant, Dave Robinson, had engaged in a months-long pattern of degrading and disparaging these women, making sexually inappropriate and objectifying comments, and threatening to ruin them if he didn’t get his way.

Some examples:

Salt Lake County Council candidate Laurie Stringham said in September that Robinson mocked a campaign video she had produced and made sexually inappropriate comments to her.

“He tells me if I want to ‘wh--- myself out,’ that is my choice,” Stringham said.

Recorder candidate Erin Preston said Robinson commented on her breasts and backside and had been threatening toward her.

And Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton raised concerns about Robinson’s behavior going back to last summer, Robinson co-authored an email where, among other things, he questioned Newton’s sexuality and that of her family.

When all of these women — and others — took their complaints to County GOP Chairman Scott Miller, he blew them off, telling them that’s just how Robinson acts and that they need to get thicker skins.

But Miller wasn’t alone in his indifference, a point Stringham drove home in a statement Tuesday evening. After Miller ignored her concerns, Stringham said, “It was also immediately reported to other elected officials. Yet it continued and increased.”

Stringham specifically told Larsen in an interview that she had discussed Robinson with Councilman Richard Snelgrove. Preston also told me Tuesday she had emailed Snelgrove about the matter and that other party officials knew of the behavior, as well.

After these women and others spoke to The Tribune about Robinson’s abuse, rather than apologizing, Miller excused Robinson’s actions and attacked the victims, accusing them of trying to sabotage his bid for Utah Republican Party chairman.

“Are most of the accusers sore losers who failed to win their respective races?” Miller wrote in an incendiary email to county party delegates. “Is this an attempt to disrupt my efforts to become the Utah GOP Chairman? … I will not be CANCELLED.”

There it is, right on cue. The “cancel culture” excuse that, as I wrote a few weeks ago, has become the most popular dodge to avoid accountability for reprehensible behavior. You call it “getting cancelled,” everyone else calls it “the consequences you deserve.”

Miller resigned his party post Sunday, a day after The Tribune story ran and in the face of widespread criticism from Republican leaders, including Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov Deidre Henderson, who condemned Miller’s indifference and victim-blaming.

“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,” they said in a joint statement. “It is unacceptable.”

On Tuesday, the party announced it was forming an ethics committee in the wake of the allegations.

Robinson’s mistreatment of these women is obviously shocking and reprehensible — and also completely believable to anyone who knows his track record.

Salt Lake County Republican officials called for him to be fired back in 2018, after he blamed the lifestyle LGBTQ youth live, including “grundles of sex,” for their high suicide rate. (This, remember, is from the county party’s communications pro.)

For whatever reason, Miller refused to cut ties with Robinson then, and stuck with him until the end — despite being warned again and again of his behavior.

In the face of this debacle Miller is plowing ahead with his campaign for state party chairman, hoping to take his colossally failed leadership to the state level.

In a way, I’m glad he is. It gives Republican state delegates a clear opportunity to either condone the unconscionable behavior, or to categorically rebuke Miller and his sidekick and send a clear message that his kind of indifference will not be tolerated.

But let’s not pretend this is just a Republican problem. In 2017, several women made similar allegations of abuse and harassment against a candidate for state Democratic Party chairman and the response was bungled as bad, if not worse.

And this boorish behavior is by no means limited to politics.

If you’re a woman you know this already and, if you’re a man and haven’t heard the stories of unwanted comments and hostile encounters from your female friends or colleagues, you need to start paying closer attention.

This is a societal problem and it stems from two fundamental failures: First, the failure of certain men, drunk on self-importance and privilege, believing they are somehow entitled to behave like knuckle-dragging fools.

Second, it’s a failure of those in power — overwhelmingly men — who lack the clarity or courage or compassion to make clear that abuse in any setting will not be tolerated.

We can’t have a climate conducive to elevating women to leadership — whether in politics or the boardroom — if they are simultaneously being subjected to an abusive environment lacking the structural supports and safeguards to prevent boorish behavior and punish the perpetrators.

Until we get to that point, the high-minded rhetoric about valuing women and their contributions will continue to ring hollow.