- Enrique Limón
Who the hell cares when exactly Rep. Jason Chaffetz' congressional seat became vacant, anyway? Sticklers about the letter of the law—that's who.
If the 3rd Congressional District seat didn't open until Chaffetz actually left office last week, as some policymakers have argued, then Gov. Gary Herbert disregarded the law when he called on the Lieutenant Governor's Office to open up candidate filing.
House Speaker Greg Hughes said it succinctly at a June 20 press conference on the Hill: "When you write a letter of intent to resign, you're not resigning."
Why does it matter? Because the law stipulates that the governor "shall issue a proclamation calling an election" when a vacancy occurs. Not, as it were, leading up to it.
"We do worry about the definition of 'a vacancy.' We do worry that Congressman Chaffetz is more than in his right to change his mind and stay in that seat," Hughes said at the time.
Standing next to Hughes, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser echoed a "separation of powers" complaint that says the governor should have called a special session to give the Legislature a voice in the process.
"From a [Utah] Senate point of view, we feel very adamant about protecting the authority we have over times, places and manners of all elections," he said. "That is our prerogative, and I think it's clear in the Constitution."
During the 2017 session, legislators tried to hammer out a bill that would have addressed congressional vacancies, but it floundered.
Last spring, Chaffetz announced his departure and circled June 30 as his last day in Congress. Herbert immediately delivered his proclamation, and election filing began the following day. Chaffetz, who split his time between Washington, D.C., and Alpine, said he wanted to spend more time with his family. In the days leading up to his exit, Fox News confirmed rumors that Chaffetz would be hired as a contributor.
But Mark Thomas, election officer at the Lieutenant Governor's Office, says splitting hairs over whether the law's verb tense gives his office authority to begin preparing for a replacement election is "silly."
"I really just think it would be irresponsible to not begin the process of preparing and getting candidates in the queue and ready to go so that voters in the 3rd District are quickly represented," he says.
Thomas adds that his office decided to act quickly and "piggyback" on the municipal election dates (primary, Aug. 15; general, Nov. 7) to save the state from having to send out separate ballots.
And Herbert thinks precedent is on his side. When Florida Republican Joe Scarborough hung up his congressional hat in 2001, his replacement was elected before "Morning Joe" had left office, Herbert noted.
At a KUED monthly news conference, Herbert said his office had been in dialogue with the U.S. Department of Justice and congressional leadership. He also mentioned he spoke personally with Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan about the replacement election. "We think we are on very solid legal footing," the governor said.
However, neither Hughes, nor Niederhauser, nor House Minority Leader Brian King—who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his colleagues after a rare joint House-Senate meeting—wants to disrupt the election process that is well underway.
That's good news for former legislator Chris Herrod, who emerged above the thicket of GOP hopefuls at the Republican caucus on June 17. Utah Policy declared his victory an upset, but he'll still have to contend with two popular challengers: Provo Mayor John Curtis and Tanner Ainge, an attorney and son to basketball legend Danny Ainge. Curtis and Ainge secured their spots on the primary ballot by gathering more than 7,000 signatures.
Republican voters will whittle the field down to one at the Aug. 15 primary.
On the Democratic side, Kathie Allen won her delegates' votes, beating out two other challengers. Since no other Democratic candidate turned in signatures, her name will appear on the November ballot. As will IAP candidate Jason Christensen's, who won his party's nomination last month. Libertarian candidate Joe Buchman was the only person to file from his party.
The United Utah Party still is in the process of qualifying as an official political party, but Thomas reiterated that no UUP candidate would be eligible to run in the special election. The party filed suit in federal court on June 21, alleging that the Lieutenant Governor's Office should have allowed candidate Jim Bennett to run.
Non-party candidates had until mid-June to file for a ballot spot. Sean Whalen of Draper was the only unaffiliated hopeful to file.
If you've missed the deadline but still want to be a qualified write-in candidate, you can register with the Lieutenant Governor's Office until Sept. 8. As of press time, Sandy resident Russell Roesler was the only write-in candidate registered.