An often-invisible group of elected officials called “precinct committeemen” have been the subject of increasing controversy in recent months.
Now the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee is set to formally denounce Gov. Butch Otter over what some think is a plan to influence these most-local of elections.
“(Attorney General) Lawrence Wasden said during the primary election last year that it was a fight for the heart and soul of the party,” said longtime political analyst Jim Weatherby. “This looks like it may be the beginning of Chapter 2.”
The latest controversy centers around a political action committee, or PAC, which Otter formed earlier this year. Otter PAC, as the group is called, is set to hold a major fundraiser Jan. 9. Tickets to the dinner range from $500 to $10,000.
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Repeated calls and emails to Otter, Otter PAC’s treasurer and PAC officials weren’t returned.
Otter PAC’s website promises these funds will go “to directly help local, county and state races, including the election of precinct committeemen.”
It’s that last item that has many in the Bonneville GOP up in arms.
Precinct committeemen form the grassroots base of political parties. They work on the neighborhood level, drumming up the vote for the party’s candidates.
Crucially, they also elect the leadership of county central committees, the party’s first line of organization.
The Bonneville County Republican Central Committee is dominated by precinct committeemen such as Chairman Doyle Beck and Region 7 Chairman Bryan Smith, who have been harshly critical of their party’s governor. And they suspect Otter PAC will be used to dump money into precinct committeeman races in order to bring Otter’s camp of the party back into control.
“If you had a sitting precinct committeeman, and they were challenged by someone who had $10,000, and they came out with paid street walkers and flyers, who do you think would win?” Beck said. “So whoever came up with that $10,000 is likely to control that precinct.”
Weatherby said those fears may be justified.
“What Otter may be doing is reasserting his political leadership of the party,” he said.
Smith said Otter was undermining the precinct committeeman’s role at the base of a bottom-up political system.
“Unfortunately, the Otter PAC seeks to establish a big-money, top-down political hierarchy to influence local precinct committeemen,” Smith wrote in an email.
Not all within the local GOP support the move to denounce Otter PAC.
“I don’t need a letter chastising the governor to make me want to work harder for the voice of the people and a common-sense approach to government,” former state Rep. Ann Rydalch said.
The Bonneville GOP took an email vote on whether to denounce Otter PAC over the last week. The email warned precinct committeemen that if they criticized Otter’s “crony capitalism” or his “good old boy network,” Otter PAC might target their seats.
“If you say anything that draws the ire of the governor, then a Gov. Otter supporter will report your insubordinate behavior and you will be targeted,” the email stated.
The results of the vote were final at 5 p.m. on Friday. The county’s precinct committeemen overwhelmingly voted to denounce. A statement will be drafted by the county’s executive committee.
This the second time in as many months that there has been a conflict over precinct committeemen in Bonneville County. Last month a fight broke out over the appointment of precinct committeemen to several vacant seats. Many charged the meeting hadn’t been properly noticed, and by normal state election laws they were right.
But officials in the Secretary of State’s Office said those election laws don’t apply to precinct committee appointments, which are governed only by party rules.