More than 150 Republicans from around the state packed into a charter school cafeteria on Saturday to decide the next state treasurer and debate a pair of hot-button issues surrounding education and guns.
The main order of business on Saturday was selecting a replacement for David Damschen, who stepped down from that position in April to take over a housing nonprofit.
It took four rounds of voting to determine which three candidates Gov. Spencer Cox would choose from to replace Damschen as treasurer. In the end, committee members selected investment banker Seth Sunderland, investment professional Marlo Oaks and Riverton City Councilmember Tawnee McCay as the finalists. State Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Riverton, fell just short of the top three, losing to McCay in the final round.
Whoever Cox picks to fill the open treasurer seat won’t have much time to settle into the job. The office will be up for voters in a special election next year.
After an interminable interlude to elect several party committee positions, central committee members considered two controversial proposed resolutions on gun rights and the banning of critical race theory in Utah’s schools.
Despite the air conditioning in the large room, the meeting got heated early as a group of committee members attempted to remove that resolution from the agenda for fear it could paint the party in a negative light. That effort failed.
Rep. Steve Christiansen, R-West Jordan, urged committee members to adopt the resolution, because he’s planning on sponsoring legislation next year to ban the teaching of critical race theory, and having the party on board would help his efforts.
Christiansen claimed there is a national petition with teachers, some from Utah, vowing to teach critical race theory despite any state prohibitions.
“We need legislation to provide penalties for teachers who don’t abide by the law,” he said.
Christiansen did not respond when asked what petition he was referring to. A petition from the Zinn Education Project asks teachers to sign a pledge to not sanitize history education. It’s not clear whether any Utah teachers had signed on.
“Critical race theory is not in our state core standards, but the curriculum taught by individual teachers is up to them,” said Jessica Fiveash, a former teacher from Weber County.
“This is going through the Marxist agenda pushed by the National Education Association, the Utah Education Association and local union members,” she warned.
There were a few in the group who pushed back on the proposal, suggesting it could benefit from a more thoughtful process.
“I’m worried about the slippery slope and what kind of history we can teach,” said Erin Preston, an education attorney from Salt Lake County. “I’ve had parents come to me and ask that our school not teach about slavery because they had adopted a Black student. They didn’t want our K-12 school to ever teach about slavery so their child would never find out about it,” she said.
She also warned that they were creating an atmosphere that would cause damage to the education system.
“If a teacher starts talking about history, a student pulls out a cell phone and starts recording them. Suddenly, they’re at risk of being fired. This is the kind of environment our teachers are in. Can we please have more discussion about this?” she asked.
In the end, committee members voted overwhelmingly to adopt the resolution.
Earlier in the day, the committee overwhelmingly approved a resolution in support of declaring Utah a Second Amendment sanctuary. That passed without debate.
Notes from Saturday’s meeting
• Newly elected Party Chair Carson Jorgensen, who took office a little more than a month ago, scolded party members against infighting, mostly because of lingering hurt from the protracted fight over the legal challenge to the signature path for candidates.
“There is a division in this party. All of you know what it is. I guarantee you can look around this room and there’s somebody you don’t agree with. But I’ll bet you agree with them 95 percent of the time,” he said. “We get caught on simple issues that keep us from getting along. That’s what the Democrats want. They want this fighting because the longer we we spend fighting, the less time we spend on things that really matter,” said Jorgensen.
• Republican State Party Vice-Chair Jordan Hess took issue with a recent Salt Lake Tribune article examining whether the state is drifting to the political right as Republicans embrace culture war issues that are consuming much of right-wing media.
“It’s not radical to believe that females should compete against females in high school sports,” he said. “It’s not radical to cherish the Second Amendment. It’s not radical to believe everyone is created equal and that not one race is better than the other.”
• The virtual part of the meeting was disrupted for a time by what some are dubbing “Chick-fil-A gate.”
Former state senator Dan Hemmert interrupted the Zoom portion of the meeting when he left his microphone unmuted while ordering lunch for his children at a drive-thru.
“Based on the calls and texts I was getting, you would have thought it was the end of times,” said Hemmert.
He offered to send those who were upset by the disturbance coupons for the restaurant.
• The “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen was not absent from Saturday’s meeting.
“I was part of the voter integrity group that took place in Las Vegas,” said Weber County Republican Brent Odenwalter, who was up for a slot on the party’s audit committee.
”I was really appalled at the amount of fraud and corruption that is being allowed in our election process,” he said. Baseless allegations of election fraud by former President Donald Trump and his supporters led to the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
• New party secretary Olivia Horlacher, who is going by her middle name Olivia Dawn, took issue with a Salt Lake Tribune article revealing she marched with protesters to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6. Her social media posts show she came within a few hundred feet of the Capitol as some in the mob overwhelmed the Capitol Police and invaded the building.
She said because of that, she has faced calls to resign from office.
”I am not going to resign. I have been accused of attending the insurrection in Washington, D.C. That is not the truth. I attended rallies to call for a fair, transparent and honest election process,” she said.
”It is important that we stand for our rights and our principles while we still have them, because they are constantly and consistently being ripped apart and torn away,” she said.
• Perennial candidate Chadwick Fairbanks, who was eliminated from the treasurer’s race following the second round of voting, made a transphobic and sexist joke during his speech to committee members.
”Governor Cox has already said he wants to appoint a woman,” said Fairbanks, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress three times.
“So, I would like to publicly announce that I identify as a transgender Asian woman.”
”That claim is not true,” said a spokesperson for Gov. Cox when asked about Fairbanks’ assertion.
“He has not said that.”
Fairbanks also advocated for getting “out of the U.S. dollar” and praised a 2011 Utah law allowing gold and silver to be used as legal tender in the state.