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Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Primary Candidates Gather in American Fork (Part 1, Everything but Senate)

Primary candidates were (mostly) present or represented from three races in the first hour: Republicans for Utah County Commission; Democrats for US House of Representatives (Utah 2nd); and three candidates in a non-partisan race for Alpine School Board.


American Fork's historic City Hall was the scene tonight of a debate among school board, county commission, US House of Representatives, and US Senate candidates who will be on the ballot for the June 22 primary. Hosted by the American Fork Youth City Council and competently moderated by American Fork City Councilor Shirl LeBaron, the event drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 130, nearly all of whom stayed for the whole two hours.

The first hour, which I will discuss here, was devoted to candidates in all the races which have primaries, except the US Senate race. The second hour was entirely devoted to Republican Senate candidates Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater and will be the subject of a separate blog post, which I will begin writing as soon as I have finished and posted this one.

In both hours, questions were written and submitted by the audience, then selected, combined, edited, etc., by the moderator. In the first hour, two minutes were allotted for each opening and closing statement, and one minute for each response by each candidate.


First disclaimer: As usual here, I will not attempt to provide a detailed blow-by-blow account of the evening, let alone a transcript. I will summarize a lot, quote a little, analyze when the mood strikes, and simply ignore what I don't think was relevant or interesting. I'm not even trying to be chronological or comprehensive.

Second disclaimer: I walked in the door already having personal favorites in all races but one, the primary race for the US House seat from Utah's Second District, between Jim Matheson and Claudia Wright. (I won't be voting in that race at all.) In the county commission and senate races, I have actually cast votes for a candidate at either the county or state Republican convention. In the case of the school board race, one candidate's sign is on my lawn.

Despite my leanings -- some strong, some not -- I flatter myself that I have enough experience in campaign politics to allow some objectivity in evaluating candidates' performance at the event. And in case you're curious, I note that none of my preferences changed as a result of the evening's event, though the possibility existed.

Final disclaimer: What you get is here is what I think. I don't know and will not attempt to evaluate whether it will please you or any given candidate or not. If you disagree, or if I get something wrong, feel free to comment.

To communicate with candidates or view their Web sites, look them up in the Utah County candidates list.

Degrees of Absence: Matheson vs. Wright for US House (Democrats)

The evening cast no direct light on the Democratic congressional primary, because neither candidate was there. But there are differing degrees of absence.

There is the unaccounted absence, which leaves people wondering if the candidate just doesn't care or is having trouble with her campaign organization. (There are other possibilities, including communications breakdowns between event organizers and the campaign.) Tonight this was Claudia Wright. The second greatest disappointment of the evening for me was her absence. I wouldn't vote for her, but I did want to watch, listen, and take her measure.

At the other end of the spectrum there is the I-really-wish-I-could-be-there-but-I-can't-so-here's-a-surrogate-who-knows-me-well-and-comes-armed-with-actual-statements-from-me absence. John Burton, a school board candidate, came close to this (except for the prepared statements), of which more below. Incumbent Congressman Jim Matheson landed in the middle, by recruiting a representative just this afternoon, who did not hesitate to mention the last-minute timing, who couldn't say much about the congressman's positions on specific issues, and who kept getting things stuck to his shoes, in a manner of speaking.

All the benefit Matheson got from his last-minute proxy, former American Fork mayor Ted Barratt, who himself is already on the November ballot as the Democrat nominee for a county commission seat, was that Matheson is helpful and a good listener, and "you'd be hard pressed to find a better man." That last statement would have been more fun had the female challenger been there, I suppose.

In any case, what Claudia Wright got from Barratt was noteworthy. Barratt said repeatedly that he didn't know where Matheson stands on a particular issue. This is not inherently bad, and one wants to be cautious in such situations. But Barratt unwittingly highlighted  Matheson's reputation for sitting on the fence, rather than pushing people toward an e-mail address or Web site where they can interact with the congressman and get his answers. This is an actual quote: "All of us have wondered sometimes about Jim." That statement drew cheers and happy applause from the audience. Oops.

The audience also cheered a question which asked whether Matheson will fight to defund and repeal ObamaCare, or "just keep studying it" until right before the vote (a clear criticism of his approach to the recent legislation). Barratt said, "I don't know where he's at [on the issue]." I'm not a Matheson supporter, but I cringed sympathetically nonetheless.

Neither candidate looked good in absentia, and the voters who attended didn't learn much, except for whatever we might have inferred from the two candidates' differing approaches to absence.

Maybe it doesn't matter; it's not likely that this Democratic primary race will be won or lost in American Fork. But it could matter. I strongly suspect that Republican John Swallow's near miss against Congressman Matheson in a general election several terms ago would have had a different outcome, had Swallow not been conspicuously absent from north Utah County in the last weeks of the campaign.

County Commission Seat A: Anderson vs. Wright (Republicans)

I didn't hear anything new in the county commission race. Overall, I'd give challenger Joel Wright an A- for the evening, and incumbent Gary Anderson a B+. In the interest of full disclosure, I note that I voted for Joel Wright at convention. (Four years ago, to be sure, I voted for Anderson.)

In his opening statement, Wright explained how the county commission seats work in Utah County; this was probably helpful to more than a few in attendance. There are three seats, two of which are up for election this year. All three are county-wide; they don't represent specific districts. Wright also said he wants to focus on regional issues, such as transportation and crime, which require attention on more than a city-by-city level. He also said nice things about limited government -- as did everyone else who spoke, I think, except possibly Ted Barratt, Jim Matheson's surrogate.

Anderson emphasized his support among the law enforcement community and his work in getting the county to address long-overdue transportation issues. He noted that he hasn't raised taxes, and he won't.

Here I must insert a disclaimer: Utah's truth-in-taxation law is perverse, as I've said before. It not only requires rate decreases (or unchanged rates) to be treated as tax increases in many cases; it allows candidates to claim that taxes weren't raised, even though rates went up. Anderson's approach to this is to proclaim his own purity of record and intent. Wright's is to use numbers to show that taxes increased even if there wasn't technically a tax increase. It's unnecessary complex and obscure, but it's the state legislature's fault, not these candidates'.

Wright insisted that there have been large increases in the county budget; Anderson says there have been no increases. Wright promises to roll back the latest pay increase for county commissioners; Anderson evaded this theme and talked about pay increases for county employees at large.

Wright said that a $40 million convention center should have been put to the voters, if it was going to be done at all.

Anderson boasted that Utah County has the lowest taxes and the smallest staff (per capita) among all Utah counties, then partly undermined his own argument by explaining that this is because Utah County doesn't have to provide municipal services, as many counties do. (The population of unincorporated portions of Utah County is very small.)

Wright promises not to serve more than two terms. Anderson says that if you ignore two terms he served in the last century, before returning to his law practice for a while, he's running for his second term right now.

Wright says the county government should just get out of the way of economic growth; Anderson sees a larger role for the county to play in economic development. (Presumably, this includes the convention center.)

Anderson emphasized his skill in bringing people together. He noted that mayors support him. In this vein, however, he went one step too far: He spoke of Utah Senator Howard Stephenson (the Utah Taxpayers Association's founder) reporting that Utah County is the best-governed county in the best-governed state in the Union. The inference was obvious, that this is partly to the incumbent's credit. Quite apart from the fact that I don't think these evaluations originated with Senator Stephenson, this opened the door wide for Wright to note that Stephenson has endorsed him, not Anderson.

I am rarely fazed by endorsements, but I am outright suspicious of claimed endorsements in Anderson's case. Prior to the county convention, he bombarded county delegates with e-mails naming a lot of people who endorsed him. Repeatedly, he had to send out a retraction later the same day, because he used a name without permission or claimed an endorsement from an organization that either hadn't endorsed him or could not do so.

If I were Joel Wright's campaign manager, I would have wanted to hear a little more substance from him. I thought he spoke more than necessary of principles and generalities, when it might have helped to display his command of details. Admittedly, the format -- lots of candidates, short responses -- doesn't easily lend itself to detail, but even so, there could have been more.

If I were Gary Anderson's campaign manager, I'd be telling him two things. First, if you want to call your opponent a liar, you ought to have something that sounds like a fact or two at your disposal, rather than simply making the thinly-veiled assertion. Second, his campaign comes across as a compilation of tried-and-true Utah County conservative slogans and some related button-pushing. Sometimes that's enough, perhaps. But in a year when people are actually listening, and his opponent's approach is markedly less shallow, and there's more than the usual anti-incumbent scent in the air, slogans and button-pushing probably aren't enough.

For what it's worth, Wright got more applause than Anderson tonight, though I got the impression that the voters there are not finished evaluating him. And though my support of Wright is a bit soft at this point, for reasons I'm not going to describe here, Wright did nothing to push me away tonight, and Anderson did nothing whatsoever to pull me away.

Alpine School Board: Osborn vs. Burton vs. O'Neill (non-partisan)

The primary in this non-partisan race will reduce the field to two candidates for the November general election.

Challenger John Burton was absent, because of a long-standing family commitment elsewhere in the state. The fact that we knew why helped mitigate the damage of his absence. The fact that he was ably, articulately, and passionately represented by one Cindy (spelling?) Davis helped just that much more. Still, Burton's absence was the evening's biggest disappointment for me. I have exchanged some e-mails with him and was hoping to take his measure in person tonight.

I know people who know Burton, who is a retired Alpine School District principal and administrator. These people unanimously admire him both as a person and as a professional. Ms. Davis did nothing to diminish this; if anything, she enhanced it. She avoided answering things she should not have tried to answer for him, and referred people to the candidate himself, even giving his phone number. She kept emphasizing that he is caring, intelligent, and skilled at balancing competing interests.

Challenger Kelly O'Neill, who turns out to be a middle-aged male, comes from the private sector, bringing skills, by his own account, in balancing the needs of an institution with the needs of its customers, and in keeping the customers happy. One can see the possible applications of such skills on a school board, but I thought O'Neill's certainty that he could get the school board to work together on his agenda was a trifle optimistic.

One-term incumbent Tim Osborn declares himself to be willing to get his hands dirty and to listen -- which has been my experience, by the way. (He's the one whose sign is in my yard.) He insists that the schools don't need more money; they need a new paradigm, and they need to focus on teaching each student at his or her own pace and level. He told of administrators and others insisting that a school board member's duty is to defend the public schools and to lobby for more money; he responded that his duty is actually to defend education for the public -- not a subtle difference -- and the schools don't necessarily need more money. He was actually pleased when money got tight, he said, because then teachers, schools, and the district had to figure out how to do more with less -- which they did.

One question was about Investigations Math, the biggest and baddest controversy in the district over the past several years. The question cited some of the draconian and underhanded measures used around the district to enforce the curriculum's use and to expunge traditional methods (such as that dastardly, old-fashioned teaching of the multiplication tables). Osborn noted that he has been against that curriculum from the beginning; the rest of his response sounded like a policy wonk's, not a candidate's, so he may have missed an opportunity to lock in the sensible math curriculum vote very firmly. O'Neill said the curriculum didn't work and should have been abandoned long ago. Ms. Davis represented Mr. Burton's view accurately, I believe, in something of a party-line response that noted the need to balance direct instruction and exploration. (This spins the issue unjustly against opponents in two ways: it makes the district's position sound reasonable and balanced, which it hasn't been until lately and only under duress, and it suggests that the malcontents think that only direct instruction -- lectures and drilling -- is appropriate. If there's anyone out there who thinks that, it's only a small minority. The rest of us malcontents actually believe in the mixed approach and think that Investigations systematically excludes drilling and direct instruction, rather than balancing it.)

Asked about charter schools, Osborn said he loves them. O'Neill said he has no problem with them, but we need to make sure that the funding follows the student easily and efficiently. At first I thought Davis was evading the question by talking about communication, but it turned out she had essentially the same concern (on Burton's behalf) about funding following students, especially when they change schools at the last minute.

O'Neill's answer to the question, what differentiates you from your opponents, was fundamentally good but a little tone-deaf. He noted that if you want change, you don't vote for the establishment; Burton -- not the incumbent, Osborn -- is the establishment candidate. In his answer O'Neill overestimated the appeal of the word change, which has lots of bad vibes since 2008. And in noting that Osborn has rubbed some people the wrong way and is said not to be a team player, he overestimated the room's desire for a team player. Osborn nailed this one. He said, if he's rubbed some people the wrong way, that means he's been doing his job, and he's proud of it. The audience was pleased.

Davis had some interesting things to say about Burton. Years ago, his son needed a very costly bone marrow transplant, and insurance paid only a small part of the cost. So the American Fork High School Marching Band and other school-related organizations raised the rest of the money. After that, he gratefully vowed that, after he retired, he would run for school board, so he could "give back" to the community which had been so generous with him and his son -- hence his candidacy now.

She also noted that in a number of other districts, in the aftermath of 9/11, detailed instructions were circulated to teachers about things they were and were not allowed to say in discussing it. In the Alpine School District, teachers were basically told, you know your students; use your judgment. The connection to Burton is unclear here, but it's an interesting insight and a positive view of Alpine School District.

O'Neill promised that, if he is elected, he will serve only one term. It sounded like shallow pandering to proponents of term limits. He also raised, out of the blue, the spectre of special interests, and said he won't cater to them. I'm not sure which special interests those would be, and he didn't explain; nor did he say whether the incumbent was catering to them, or the other challenger would. He was just pushing buttons, and that button doesn't work for me in the absence of substance. He won no points from me in either matter.

All in all, Ms. Davis did about as well at mitigating the effects of Burton's absence as any candidate has a right to expect, but it's hard to close the deal with voters by proxy. O'Neill was fairly articulate and pushed some of the essential anti-establishment buttons. Osborn, despite being the least articulate of the three at times, had enough excellent moments and got more applause than the other two.

Burton in absentia: B+. O'Neill: B. Osborn: A-. For my part, I'm leaving Osborn's sign up at my house.

Next . . .

The next post will discuss the event's second hour, featuring Republican candidates for US Senate Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee -- and doing so with relative brevity. I promise.

David Rodeback comments (6/2/2010):

Here's the Daily Herald story on the event.

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