Only in Utah can a man accused of sexual assault and awaiting trial retain a position of prominence in the GOP without so much as a raised eyebrow from the party known for its family values and moral rectitude.
Early last month, Salt Lake County’s Republican Party held its 2007 organizing convention. Six hundred fifty delegates filled the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy to choose the party’s new leadership—namely the county’s 32 representatives on the Republican State Central Committee. Most of those elected at the convention came from a slate of candidates put together by the party leadership. But several candidates not on the party’s list captured an impressive number of votes. Among them: E. Ozwald Balfour and his daughter Cleopatra Balfour. Both were elected to the central committee. Balfour is also the chairman of the Utah Republican Black Assembly.
Balfour’s name may ring a bell because, two years back, he was in the news for allegedly forcing himself on several women. He was arrested in February 2005 and charged in 3rd District Court with four felony counts of forcible sex abuse, according to court documents. Subsequently, two women testified in preliminary hearings that he had brought them into the studio of his media production company in Salt Lake City for photo sessions and then tried to seduce them. The case has not yet gone to trial, and Balfour maintains his innocence.
“If I was guilty, my black ass would be in jail,” says Balfour.
In the two years since, Balfour’s business dealings and social life lost much of their vigor because of his legal woes. Still married and operating a media consulting business, Balfour has put most of his energy into politics. It paid off. While he was politically active before the scandal, he has not only managed to keep his place in the party but established a firm foundation there. He is the only state central committee member sitting for the second term.
In a political era where the mere whiff of scandal can force resignations, Balfour has survived. What is more, his party is known for its virulent attacks on immorality in the public sphere. But his continued status in the GOP is just as much a tale of Balfour’s resilience in the often-contentious intraparty politics as it is about his past scandals.
Balfour chalks up his initial survival and recent re-election to his effort, commitment to the party and willingness to work with everyone despite disagreements. But some former and current party members say that Balfour has kept his place in the party more because he knew how to read the writing on the wall and vote with whomever had the power to oust him, and that means the party leadership.
From the start, Balfour had to stand up for himself, he says. At the first executive committee meeting after the charges came to light, Balfour was asked to resign. “‘If you really loved the party, you would not bring it to disrepute,’” he recalls being told. But Balfour was adamant he should not have to step down because he had been accused of a crime. He reminded the committee that he was innocent until proven guilty. By the end of the meeting, the committee voted to let him stay.
“I could have resigned,” he says. “But you know what people would have said: ‘He’s guilty.’”
Tiani Coleman, who was the Republican Party county chair at the time, says that if Balfour had been ousted, it would have had more to do with personal politics than with the charges against him.
“There are some people on the executive committee who might have taken advantage of this vulnerability of Oz,” she said. “Perhaps they did not take advantage of their opportunity because he toed the line.”
Nancy Lord, GOP national committeewomen, who has been at odds with the county’s current leadership agrees. “For anyone to keep their position for long in the county party, they need to kiss up to the current leadership and not ask questions about fair rules,” she says, noting you can’t go openly against the leadership without risking your neck.
The rule changes she refers to have been at the center of the party’s division since before 2000. Mike Ridgway, the party’s main dissident, has led much of the fight between reformers who want to invigorate the party’s bottom-up voting structure and the party’s leadership who don’t think there is a problem with the status quo.
Balfour disagrees. “I don’t think it’s fair to characterize me as someone who has sold out,” he says. “Because, guess what, I get no favors.”
The central figure that Coleman, Lord and others say control the county party is Dana Dickson, who is vice chair of the Salt Lake County Republican Party and has been involved in the party for the last decade. Dickson says that Balfour has done well for himself politically because he is a capable man, not because he has done anyone’s bidding. Balfour’s legal troubles, Dickson says, should not be a political death sentence. “I think what [the executive committee] ended up deciding was that he deserves to be innocent until proven guilty.”
In the meantime, Balfour awaits his trial. As for politics, even in the courtroom, Balfour doesn’t seem able to escape them. The prosecutor in his case takes orders from the very district attorney—Lohra Miller—whom Balfour helped elect. And Miller, like Balfour, was just elected to the Republican state central committee.