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Public comments by a pair of top Utah Republican Party officials criticizing the party and calling for the abolishment of public education have sparked an effort to clamp down on the two outspoken conservatives.
A resolution going before the state Central Committee next week would prohibit Utah Republican Party Vice Chairman Lowell Nelson and Secretary Drew Chamberlain from speaking on behalf of the party.
Their supporters believe it is an effort by the party establishment to oust the two outsiders from their elected positions and the fight over the resolution could widen a rift between the GOP factions.
Todd Weiler, himself a former Utah GOP vice chairman, is sponsoring the resolution to restrict party officials from speaking for the party, saying they have been staking out positions in radio interviews, newspaper articles and in testimony to the Legislature that are contrary to the party's platform.
"I think that is entirely inappropriate," Weiler said. "I'm not going to sit on my hands as someone who has spent the better part of the last 12 years working to advance Republican issues while these two, unwittingly or intentionally, undo the work I've done."
Dave Duncan, who ran for party chairman with Nelson and Chamberlain, said they were open that they were party outsiders, but were elected by delegates who wanted to shake up the party establishment. Now, Duncan said, the party is fighting back.
"I've kind of been bracing for this attack from the establishment," Duncan said. "I have expected this to be coming and I won't be at all surprised if this central committee removes Lowell and Drew here soon. This is obviously the first step to do that."
Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright said he has to remain neutral on party resolutions, but confirmed that traditionally the party chairman has served as the spokesman and he has asked them not to speak on behalf of the party.
"Our goal as the Utah Republican Party is to elect Republicans to public office, it's not to share our political views or debate our views in the public forum," Wright said. "I was disappointed by some of the remarks that were made by Lowell and Drew and I'm hopeful and optimistic they'll get back on the team so we can serve successfully together through the 2012 [election] cycle."
In an interview last week on community radio station KRCL that was conducted by Utah Democratic Chairman Jim Dabakis, Nelson and Chamblerlain made clear that they were only speaking for themselves.
In that interview, they expressed support for ending public education, Medicaid and Social Security.
Chamberlain said that "personally" he would do away with Social Security and Medicaid "because I'm more conservative than most." Nelson said that "we've socialized the cost of education," and it could be done away with, but clarified that "my beef with the public education system isn't a party position." Neither would answer a question about whether or not Sen. Orrin Hatch should be replaced or if Wright was "mainstream."
"We're not the official representatives of the party … we're speaking for ourselves," Chamberlain said.
Weiler acknowledges that when he was vice chairman he often spoke on behalf of the party, but only when he was directed to do so by the party chairman.
"Jim Dabakis obviously had a reason for inviting them and it was pretty evident that the reason was, number one, to highlight the division in the Utah Republican Party and, two, to paint the leaders of the Republican Party as extremist and out-of-touch," Weiler said. "They fell directly into the trap that he laid for them."
Weiler's resolution also states that party officials are not allowed to call the party's delegate selection process illegal or "tainted" or engage in litigation against the party.
Nelson and Chamberlain are among the plaintiffs in a suit challenging the party's "automatic delegate" system which makes elected officeholders state party delegates and they criticized it in an opinion piece in July in the Deseret News where they were identified as party leaders.