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The 2012 battle for the Republican gubernatorial nomination erupted into a contest Thursday of who can most aggressively confront the federal government, with one candidate vowing a flood of lawsuits, another saying federal agents can haul him away in handcuffs.
Both challengers former Rep. Morgan Philpot and Rep. Ken Sumsion agree that Gov. Gary Herbert has failed to assert the state's dominance over public lands, health care and general state sovereignty.
"The time for the ribbon-cutting, politics-as-usual governor is over," Philpot said. "We need ideas, strategies and an ocean of new thinking. We need leaders with guts to say, 'No. Not here. … You can take your Democratic, socialist, central-planning elsewhere, but it will never fly here."
Philpot advocated litigation, nullification of federal laws and flat defiance of demands he deemed unconstitutional even if it means his arrest.
"Am I going to jail if I do? If that's what it's going to take. Does the federal government need to come down and throw some handcuffs on the governor of Utah?" he asked, to applause from his supporters.
Philpot, who lost a congressional bid to U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson by fivepercentage points last year, said that, as governor, he would support nullifying federal health-care reform even if the courts decide it's legal.
Sumsion, R-American Fork, said direct defiance should be a last resort after other tools are exhausted, including filing a barrage of lawsuits. He also urged collaborating with other states and passing bills that attract lawsuits by the federal government.
Overt defiance would be the final card he would play as governor.
"That's the step of last resort absolutely the step of last resort," Sumsion said, "because if we're at that point as a nation, we're going to look like Greece, with riots in the streets."
Litigation would be expensive, Sumsion conceded, but not as costly as losing trillions of dollars in coal reserves in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and not fighting it aggressively.
Federal courts rejected legal challenges to Grand Staircase. Sumsion said the state should stand firm against future monuments.
"As governor, no more compromising, no more trading. … we're not taking another monument," he said. Nor should the federal government be allowed to close roads across federal lands even if that means showdowns between state and federal law enforcement.
"You know what we need to do?" Sumsion asked. "If our sheriffs want to enforce the law, they need to have confidence that the Legislature and the governor and the [Attorney General's] Office are going to support them when they go handcuff a federal agent and say, 'You know what, you're not closing this road.' "
Philpot, who lives in Orem, said he, too, supports defying federal road closures, even reopening closed routes.
Ben Horsley, a spokesman for the Herbert campaign, said allegations that the governor has not fought for the state's rights are inaccurate.
"Not only has the governor led the state in its economic recovery," Horsley said, "but he continued to be at the forefront of protecting our state sovereignty and has an extensive track record of doing so on issues critical to Utah, such as health care, access to federal lands and fighting back against wilderness designations."
Daniel Levin, a political science professor at the University of Utah, noted such heated rhetoric is nothing new.
"This has long been done for political effect," Levin said. "George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse doors was orchestrated straight for the photo-op."
But it becomes harder when the actions threaten federal dollars.
"Talk is cheap. Photo-ops are perhaps even cheaper, but federal money speaks far more forcefully," Levin said. "It's one thing to shake your fist at Uncle Sam. It's another thing to step away from Uncle Sugar."
Philpot said he backs revisiting private-school vouchers an idea soundly rejected by Utah voters and working with the Legislature to potentially reject federal highway and health-care money.
"If we don't stand up to the over-reaching tyrant our federal government has become," Philpot warned, "it will devour every freedom, every liberty we once had."