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New GOP Chairman Elected Amid Fresh 'Appetite' For Unity

Utah Republican Chairman Derek Brown speaks after his election.
Nicole Nixon / KUER
New Chairman of the Utah Republican Party Derek Brown speaks to the media after his election.

As the Utah Republican Party’s new chairman spoke with nearly 1,000 party delegates as he campaigned for the seat, he said heard one thing over and over: “We want to unify.”

Derek Brown, an attorney whose resume includes stints as a state lawmaker and as deputy chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee, won the party chairmanship with 62% of votes from Republican delegates at the GOP’s state convention Saturday.

Former party vice-chair Phill Wright, a more conservative candidate, received 32% while Sylvia Miera-Fisk and Chadwick Fairbanks received less than 5% each.

The party will also get a new vice-chair, secretary and treasurer.

“It’s not just the chair that can unify, it’s the willingness of the party to do it,” Brown said after his election. “A lot of it is timing.”

And the timing is right, Brown said, on the heels of the end of a drawn-out and expensive legal battle over a state election law.

“I’m not the ‘Count My Vote’ guy or the ‘Keep My Voice’ guy,” Brown said in his speech, referencing the two political groups that brought forward competing ballot initiatives over S.B. 54 last year. “I’m the ‘Win Elections’ guy, I’m the ‘Put Republicans in Office’ guy, I’m the ‘Keep Utah Red’ guy.”

Now that the major internal battles over the law known as S.B. 54 are over, Brown said he aims to make the party “more user-friendly,” raise money, and win back seats lost in the 2018 midterms, including Utah’s 4th Congressional District seat and legislative seats in Salt Lake County.

“This party is moving forward,” Brown said. “We’re looking ahead and we’re not looking behind.”

Ahead of the convention, Sen. Lee and Gov. Gary Herbert endorsed Brown in the race. Aaron Starks was elected vice-chair and Kendra Seeley ousted Lisa Shepherd as party secretary. Michael Bird was the only person to seek the party treasurer position.

Saturday’s convention marked a noticeable shift in the party after years of infighting over S.B. 54. The law gives candidates multiple paths to the primary ballot—they can either seek the party nomination through the caucus-convention nominating system, gather signatures, or do both.  

Some Republicans fought the law and sought complete authority for the party to nominate its own candidates.

In recent years, Republican conventions have been punctuated by loud debates over rules and procedure. But Saturday’s ended early after delegates limited debate and voted to remove nearly 30 proposed bylaw amendments from the agenda. Proposed resolutions, including a controversial one urging a repeal of the state's newly-strengthened hate crimes law, were also not debated. 

“It was good, I think the delegates really wanted to get down to the business of the party,” former chairman Rob Anderson said of the convention. “There were so many changes. The air was different.”

The party still has about $75,000 in outstanding debt, which Anderson said the new party leadership should be able to retire “within the next month or two.”

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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