Next week voters will choose the next chief law enforcement officer for the state of Utah. The Attorney General is part criminal prosecutor – part political adviser and the two candidates vying for the job have very different ideas on how to do it right.
Inside his office on the second floor of the state capitol, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says he’s ready to move on. The 55-year-old Republican has held the job of the state’s chief legal advisor for 12 years and he’s proud of his efforts to protect Utahn’s while also navigating the political pitfalls of the job.
“I know a number of times I’ve ticked off my own party because I felt like I needed to stand up and take certain positions. I tried to always make my decisions based on the law and the constitution,” said Shurtleff.
Shurtleff fulfilled the role of criminal prosecutor and put his efforts into cracking down on crimes against children. He also been civil litigator for Utah and gave the go ahead for the state to join more than two dozen others states in a lawsuit against the federal government over the Affordable Care Act. But he’s had the courage to reach across the aisle, even when political pressure not to is high. This past year, Shurtleff was one of very few Republican supporters of President Obama’s executive order to grant immunity to children of undocumented immigrants. He says he’s never been afraid to stand up to lawmakers in his own party when he believes they could be reaching beyond their office.
“There have been times when I’ve said to a Republican Governor: ‘Governor you can’t do that. You can’t do you what you want to do. It’s unconstitutional.’ You can reject my advice at your peril, but my job is to give you my best legal advice on issues,” said Shurtleff.
Shurtleff has been grooming the man he hopes will succeed him, Chief Deputy Attorney General John Swallow.
“The fact that he’s been here now for three years , he understands the office. He understands the role. I brought him in because I’d known him a while – he clearly had the legal experience and background to come in. He’s been criticized as not being a prosecutor, but again, half the office is prosecutorial, criminal based, and the other half is civil and he’s been my civil chief deputy. But he knows and works well the other chief deputy over at criminal and with those division chiefs,” said Shurtleff.
John Swallow brings a deep political resume to the ballot. He served in the Utah House of Representatives for six years and twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Jim Matheson. He’s received endorsements from 12 state senators and nearly three dozen members of the Utah House. Swallow’s critics say his strong party affiliation could compromise the office but he disagrees.
“I see my role as former legislator and my experience and my relationship with legislators as nothing more than a positive because I have very strong sense of the separation of powers in the executive branch and I’ve been able to work in the branch for the last three years,” said Swallow.
Weber County Attorney Dee Smith is the Democrat running against Swallow. He says the post he’s held in Ogden since 2009 gives him the skill set he needs to be Attorney General.
“To me an attorney is someone who has experience in the courtroom, trying cases, because that’s what the attornies out of the Attorney General’s office do. That’s what I’ve done. The experience that we ought to look for is experience not as a fund raiser or as a lobbyist or as a politician but someone who has actually been making and winning their cases,” said Smith.
Sim Gill is the Salt Lake County District Attorney and a supporter of Smith.
“Dee is a prosecutor first and a politician second. And I think that he is probably the most apolitical person in this equation – going into this November election. And I think that really serves as an asset to him because he doesn’t have a personal agenda to drive but a professional service to perform,” said Gill.
The next Attorney General could be poised to take on the federal government over control of Utah’s public lands. In the last legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 148, authorizing the state to begin exploring ways to regain control over millions of acres of federal land, including a potential lawsuit. Supporters want to generate revenue from natural resources and land sales to fund education. Swallow says he would explore suing the federal government if he believes there is a potential to win.
“We feel strongly from what we’ve seen that we do have some theories that we’re really developing and exploring that would give the ability to say to the federal government – look, you made promises when it became a state, you’ve broken those promises and the impact on our state is inexcusable. We’ve got to do something,” said Swallow.
Smith says challenging the federal government over public lands is nothing but political posturing and a waste of tax payer money.
“I don’t believe that it’s going to be successful so the question is why do we want to set aside millions of dollars for what a message lawsuit because we want to take on the federal government over this issue. That money could be spent elsewhere,” said Smith.
Campaign financing is another issue that sets these two candidates apart. Smith has raised less than fifty thousand dollars to fuel his campaign, but Swallow has raised more than a million dollars. Swallow’s critics say his enormous financial war chest showcases his close ties with big business in the state, but Swallow fervently defends his fundraising, pointing out that he spent most of his money on television and radio ads in his primary fight against opponent Sean Reyes.
“I’ve probably spent about eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars just to win the nomination and so now I have a little bit more money in the bank to spend and my opponent hasn’t had to do that. So, if he’s only raised fifty thousand dollars and I’ve raised over a million dollars, I’ve had to spend that kind of money to get my message out against a very talented opponent in the convention and the primary,” said Swallow.
Smith says he’s purposely turned down endorsements and contributions and relied largely on small gatherings and social media to get out his message. He doesn’t believe the attorney general’s race should consume some much campaign cash.
“As I evaluate it and try to be objective, take myself out of it, that much money coming into the attorney general’s race concerns me. The Attorney General needs to be somebody that’s neutral that doesn’t have loyalties one direction or another. When there’s that kind of money being thrown around I think it can at least call that into question,” said Smith.
As the campaigns push their messages for a few more days, both Smith and Swallow maintain their very different skill sets make them the right choice for Attorney General. Now it’s up to voters to decide.