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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

St. George council incumbents survive the primary but will face pro-Dixie challengers

David Condos

St. George voters picked their top six candidates from a wide-ranging field of 14 contenders Tuesday night in the city council primary election.

Preliminary results as of Sept. 11 show incumbents Dannielle Larkin (11.78% of the vote), Jimmie Hughes (10.76%) and Gregg McArthur (8.74%) will advance, along with challengers Paula Smith (9.98%), Steve Kemp (9.96%) and Brad Bennett (9.88%).

The six candidates with the most votes, once election results become certified, will campaign to fill three spots on the five-member St. George City Council in the general election scheduled for Nov. 21. The belated Sept. 5 primary and upcoming general election were the result of changes the Legislature made to accommodate the special election to replace Congressman Chris Stewart, who is leaving office this month.

While the St. George council race is non-partisan, some of the candidates seeking to unseat the incumbents — including Bennett and Smith — spotlighted socially conservative issues, such as protecting the region’s Dixie heritage and banning what they’ve termed as adult content from public spaces.

The most visible example of the latter issue has been the debate over allowing drag shows in the city’s parks. The council made national headlines this spring when it denied a drag show permit, a decision that was later overruled in U.S. District Court after the group Southern Utah Drag Stars sued the council.

Bennett and Smith were also among the five candidates who said they’d support legislation to rename Utah Tech University back to a moniker that features the word “Dixie,” according to a post from the local advocacy group Defending Southwestern Utah Heritage Coalition.

Geoff Allen, an assistant professor of political science at Utah Tech University, said those issues highlight the diverging approaches the six finalists have taken.

“You have four people running on the side of, ‘We want to kind of get back to business as usual.’ Then I would say Smith and Bennett are both running on a platform that's a little bit more of, ‘We need to right the ship. The ship is going in the wrong direction.’”

He was surprised the outsider candidates didn’t perform better in the primary results, given how contentious St. George politics have been in recent months.

Mayor Michele Randall temporarily suspended in-person public comment at city council meetings in May after she said the feedback sessions had become “divisive” and mired in social issues that didn’t have to do with council business. That prompted a heated meeting packed with attendees calling out messages about free speech infringement and holding signs that called Randall “un-American.”

The mayor brought back in-person comments in July, but the situation became a rallying cry for Smith, Bennett and other candidates who said the council lacked transparency and had stopped listening to constituents.

Despite the candidates’ differences, city-specific issues, such as rapid growth and water scarcity, also made their way to the top of the contenders’ agendas across the political spectrum.

Incumbent Dannielle Larkin, who currently leads the vote count, said the results show voters ultimately care most about issues that directly affect their everyday lives — things like housing affordability and the local economy.

“If people take their eye off that and they get wrapped up in issues that we don't have any control over,” Larkin said, “we're going to be really sad that we didn't keep on the same trajectory of building a really powerful quality of life for every person in St. George.”

There were no formal debates between the candidates during the primary — a forum was held in August where they were each allowed a two-minute speech. The Washington County Debate Coalition will host a debate between the final six candidates on the Utah Tech University campus Nov. 1.

Updated: September 7, 2023 at 4:28 PM MDT
This story has been updated to reflect the county clerk’s posted vote count, to link to candidate positions on St. George issues, and to add comments from Utah Tech political scientist Geoff Allen and candidate Dannielle Larkin.
David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
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