Last Democratic speaker of Utah House dies at 82

‘Speaker (Ronald) Rencher’s legacy continues to inspire our caucus’s work,’ House Minority Leader Angela Romero said.

(Parsons, Behle and Latimer) Ronald Rencher, a former Democratic state lawmaker who served as speaker of the Utah House of Representatives from 1975-1976, died on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.

Ronald Rencher, who served as speaker of the House in the Utah Legislature the last time Democrats held a majority in the body nearly half a century ago, died Monday at age 82, according to a statement from the law firm Parsons, Behle and Latimer, where he was a shareholder.

Representing Ogden, Rencher served in the Legislature for three terms from 1971 to 1976, and was speaker from 1975 until he left office. Rencher served as the U.S. attorney for the District of Utah, appointed by President Jimmy Carter, following his time at the Capitol.

“Former Utah House Speaker Ronald Rencher contributed to Utah’s political landscape and will forever be honored and remembered by the Utah House Democratic Caucus for his kindness and humility,” current House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune. She continued, “As the last Democrat to hold this esteemed position, Speaker Rencher’s legacy continues to inspire our caucus’s work on progressing Democratic values in the state of Utah.”

Prior to Democrats securing a majority in the House, Rencher was minority whip. At the time, Utah also had a Democratic governor, Gov. Calvin Rampton, and Democrats’ power in the House coincided with a slim Democratic majority in the Senate.

Both resolutions to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment were among some of the most well-known pieces of legislation to be put forward by Democrats during Rencher’s time in the Legislature. He didn’t join as a sponsor, but as speaker was among the Democrats to vote for it in 1975 when it failed to get the full caucus’s support.

Speaking to The Tribune in 1975, Rencher said, “Utah is basically conservative, ... most legislators are conservative, ... but I wouldn’t say it’s Republican-controlled.”

He continued, “There are going to be some issues where the Democrats will stick together, but again, from a philosophical standpoint, it’s easier for Republicans to vote straight Republican.”

The Tribune described him as “soft-spoken,” and wrote that his “approach centers around a ‘relaxed’ atmosphere. However, should the representatives become a bit ‘too relaxed,’ a sharp call to order from him isn’t far behind.” Rencher’s leadership method, The Tribune reported, was one “many feel has produced results in view of the amount of legislation in the hoppers.”

Utah Democratic Party Chair Diane Lewis said in a statement to The Tribune, “During his 10 years in public office and beyond, Speaker Rencher served his community with dedication, and his legacy of service will live on. Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones as they celebrate his remarkable life and career.”

After spending four years as U.S. attorney under Carter, he worked as legal counsel for the Intermountain Power Project, a coal-fired electricity plant in Delta. That plant — Utah’s largest — is scheduled to shutter in July 2025 when a replacement hydrogen-fueled plant is finished, but lawmakers voted to study forestalling the closure last session.

Rencher eventually became general manager of Intermountain Power Agency, a Utah political subdivision that provides energy to municipalities in both the Beehive State and California.

He returned to practicing law in 2006, joining Parsons, Behle and Latimer.

In a news release from the law firm, shareholder Brandon Mark said, “Ron’s legacy will be the role he played in making Utah’s legal profession more inclusive and representative — a legacy born from his sense of fairness and commitment to equality. There are many women and minority lawyers in Utah, not to mention several current and former judges, who owe a large measure of success to the fact that, for the past five decades, Ron Rencher hired and promoted lawyers and others based solely on merit and hard work.”

Clarification • This story was updated to clarify the contents of House Bill 425, calling for a study to keep Intermountain Power Plant operating.