Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: The 'bathroom issue' and others affecting Utah elections

Spring seems to have finally arrived, bringing flowers, bright clothing … and new issues for politicos. We tiptoe through the political tulips.

Last week, the U.S. Justice Department ordered all public school districts to ensure a “safe and discrimination-free environment” by allowing self-identified transgender students to use whatever bathrooms and locker rooms they wish. This friendly “guidance” came with some sharp teeth: Comply or lose federal funding. A firestorm erupted across the country, with heated responses from conservative and liberal politicians. Will the “bathroom issue” impact Utah elections?

Pignanelli: Does politics have to be injected into everything?” — Sargent Shriver

I strive to be a sunny, cheery optimist (except when deprived of wine and meatballs) and view this debate as another indication that 21st-century American society is dynamic and thriving. Strong emotions are driving vigorous discussions of constitutional rights and community values on a topic most never considered until a few months ago.

North Carolina was wrong and its insensitivity is appropriately rewarded with boycotts and protests. Other government entities witnessed the controversy, and properly approached the issue with caution.

Unfortunately, the opportunity for a "teaching moment" for the entire country was lost by the expediency of the Department of Justice action. The Obama administration should have initiated a national discussion, prompting understanding of all concerns while providing the necessary guidance to help these younger citizens. Instead, the federal government was easily painted as a cold-hearted bully imposing its will without deference to locals.

Some candidates will try to use the DOJ demand as a tool in their campaign arsenal. This too is unfortunate as transgender Utahns deserve better. The good news is that the rational response from the LDS Church and many state leaders will diminish much of the harmful rhetoric.

Webb: This directive is outrageous in many way, from obliterating any semblance of balanced federalism in this nation, to taking leave of common sense when local, case-by-case solutions can readily be found without ham-handed pressure from the feds. This is the perfect caricature of a heavy-handed, overbearing, overreaching, one-size-fits-all, top-down, bureaucratic federal government imposing a solution for a rare problem that can be solved by caring local leaders.

The issue provides Republican candidates new ammunition to fire at the federal government. To eliminate federal bribery and coercion using tax dollars, some future Republican president and Republican Congress must leave education tax dollars in the states, rather than sending the money to Washington, only to have a much diminished amount returned to the states with strings attached.

Some Republican primary candidates are facing stiff opposition because they used the Count My Vote signature-gathering process to secure a ballot spot. Will they or the caucus/convention purists prevail?

Pignanelli: For politicos, this is fascinating. The Republican primary is devoid of the motivation a presidential preference election provides, threatening a lower turnout. So the normally minimal issue of how a candidate got on the primary ballot could be significant this year, especially in Utah County, which boasts many activists (a kind description) concerned about preserving the delegate/convention system. The potential of higher voter turnout through mail in ballots in other larger counties may counter these purists.

On primary election night, the future of Count My Vote will be substantially determined by the results.

Webb: In a few cases, including the gubernatorial race, the June 28 Republican primary election is, in part, a referendum on Count My Vote. Those who hate opening the election process to all voters are frantically trying to defeat candidates who gathered signatures.

These races pit mainstream conservative candidates who want to broaden political participation against party insider candidates determined to retain political power within the party machine and the caucus/convention system. In Utah County, the Republican Party itself is trying to shrink the Republican tent by campaigning against Republican legislative candidates who didn’t come through the caucus/convention system. It is a sad commentary on today’s Republican Party that candidates who want to be accountable to all Republican voters, not just the party delegate insiders, are under attack by their own party.

In the gubernatorial primary, Jonathan Johnson has run hard against Gov. Gary Herbert because Herbert gathered signatures. Johnson is probably the single biggest long-term threat to Count My Vote. If he becomes governor, he will, no doubt, attempt to reverse all the progress Count My Vote has made to expand voter participation. He will return political control to the delegates.

Mainstream Republican voters should ask: Which candidates want to encourage broad political participation? Which candidates want to keep political power in the hands of a relatively few party insiders? Please vote for the candidates who want every vote to count.

The Legislature held a very quick special session to fund education items vetoed by the governor. Will this have any impact on the gubernatorial contest?

Pignanelli: Political insiders are weighing any strategic advantage the governor gained by demonstrating executive leadership, but possibly irritating legislators, with the vetoes. Most of the public is confused or unaware as to the controversy on the education items. Therefore, minimal impact.

Webb: The session cleaned up some disagreements between the Legislature and the executive branch, sent a lengthy resolution to the Obama administration opposing a Bears Ears national monument, and resulted in good public policy.