Is a focus on stunts instead of policy hurting the Alliance for a Better Utah?

The Alliance for a Better Utah has a problem keeping good people on staff. After losing long-time Utah politico Maryann Martindale last year and then Rob DeBirk this year, ABU is rapidly becoming an extension of the Utah Democratic Party.

Is a focus on stunts instead of policy hurting the Alliance for a Better Utah?
by Daniel Burton

Given Utah’s proclivity for conservative government, it can be hard to be a progressive-leaning advocacy group like the ABU. Republicans dominate in the state House, Senate and the governor’s mansion, and there’s no sign of that changing soon. Utahns tend to prefer a more conservative approach to government, both in style and policy.

It doesn’t help that the leading progressive organization in town tends to the extreme, not only in policy, but also in style and tone. Indeed, it’s the tone of its advocacy–focusing lately more on stunts and electing Democrats than developing and promoting good policy–that may be hurting ABU most. Not only do their arguments carry less credence with legislators, but it pushes a second executive director in six months out the door when they realize that good policy isn’t the goal so much as is making a splash in the papers.

When DeBirk, previously the policy director of the environmental group HEAL Utah, came to ABU, he was looking for an opportunity to work on policy and legislation. None other than Republican Representative Becky Edwards attested to DeBirk’s ability to cross the aisle on air-quality legislation.

“I’ve worked with Rob on successful air-quality legislation. He brings to this position the passion and ability to work across the aisle in the effort to improve our state,” said Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, told the Salt Lake Tribune.

Unfortunately, “work across the aisle” for policy change decreasingly resembled ABU’s business plan. Instead, Matt Lyon, former Utah Democratic Party executive director and an ABU board member, pushed for a more partisan role for the organization. Instead of policy and good government, ABU manufactured publicity stunts and sent mailers into the districts of GOP House leaders who opposed Healthy Utah.

It was a different ABU than DeBirk signed up for when he took the job, looking to follow in previous director Martindale’s efforts at ABU to focus on policy work. With Lyon overstepping to push the ABU to play a more partisan role made it worse. It was all about helping Democrats and hitting Republicans.

When ABU decided to plant crosses in the lawn of the Capitol during the Medicaid expansion debate late in October, it was the last straw for DeBirk.

He resigned a week later. ABU did a victory lap for the attention the stunt achieved, but ended up alienating legislators and losing their ED.

While ABU would spin the departure as due to a bad fit, sources say that DeBirk resigned because it wasn’t what he had signed up for. In some respects, then, it sounds like both are correct: DeBirk would fit well if ABU wasn’t more interested in being an arm of the Democratic Party and was more interested in helping formulate good public policy.

If I’m right, then, we can expect that whoever ABU picks as its next director will be someone willing to play the partisan card, to attack legislators, and to formulate publicity stunts that increase the ABU’s profile. Perhaps we should be glad that ABU has finally embraced what its opponents have been saying about it for years. On the other hand, it’s a disappointing turn, for the ABU and for Utah.

Even when I disagreed with Martindale, I trusted that she would approach issues from an even-handed and policy-focused position. By becoming an arm of the electoral interests of the Democratic Party, however, does not bode well . It’s just looks like the ABU is trying to imitate what happened in Colorado.

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