Friday, March 14, 2008

crafting a narrative

One of the things that impressed me most about Rob Miller's recruiting efforts for Utah Democrats this cycle was his get for the Attorney General race.
Echoes of last year's school voucher debate continued to reverberate Thursday as Jean Welch Hill filed to run against Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
Last June, Shurtleff stripped Hill of her title of special assistant to the attorney general as she advised the Utah State Office of Education on school vouchers.
In the letter removing her status, Shurtleff wrote "You have fostered an adversarial and hostile relationship between the State Board of Education and this office by giving advice contrary and inconsistent with advice given by me and others in the Attorney General's Office."
It is not that I think Ms. Hill is any stronger of a candidate against Shurtleff than any of the other challengers Rob and his collegues have recruited, it is this pick reinforces the Utah Democrats main message this fall: "They've gone too far" or "They're out of touch" or "Listening to the people, for a change."

This fall, Democrats will be talking a lot about vouchers. But the education policy choice the legislature made is almost besides the point. The real point the Democrats will be trying to make is that Republicans in power have been corrupted by it and don't represent "your values." It is the same message that Republicans used nationally against Democrats in 1994, and vice versa in 2006. There have been many books writen about "framing," and narratives, and the voucher issue is a classic example of this.

By getting the attorney that stood up to the legislature and Shurtleff's bullying on the voucher issue, when she was right on the law (the Utah Supreme Court unanimously agreed with her) and right with the public does two things. First, it ties Shurtleff to the legislature, and casts him as their stooge. Second, it reminds voters that she exhibited superior judgment than him, and suggests his judgment was clouded by lust for power. And Hill is alreadying tapping into those themes.
"What the top lawyer needs to do is listen to both sides," she said. "They need to make decisions based on the legalities, not what a political party wants."
"Utahns are frustrated with what happened last year and what continues," she said. "Obviously we need to have other voices being heard in our state government."
Shurtleff knows he is in trouble, and is trying to pull a Joe Lieberman: "I didn't take a position on vouchers," said Shurtleff.

Let's turn the way back machine to 2007, to get the real chronology on vouchers, shall we?
March 27: In response to an official request from Gov. Huntsman, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff issues an informal opinion stating that House Bill 174 can be implemented and funded regardless of the outcome of a referendum vote, if any, on House Bill 148.
May 3: In light of the successful petition drive and with no election date chosen, the Utah State Board of Education declines to pass on third and final reading a draft rule regulating vouchers in Utah. Instead, it seeks legal clarification from the Utah Attorney General.
May 11: Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff sends a letter to Utah State Board of Education Chairman Kim R. Burningham that concludes, "it is incumbent upon the Board to implement the voucher program through H.B. 174 immediately!"
May 23: Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff responds with answers to the Board’s questions of May 11.
June 6: Kim Burningham, Janet Cannon, Teresa Theurer, Greg Haws, Richard Sadler, Michael Jensen, Denis Morrill, Laurel Brown, Dixie Allen, Debra Roberts, Sheryl Allen, Steven Mascaro, Kory Holdaway, Carol Moss, Jim Bird, Fred Hunsaker, LaWanna Shurtliff, and Utahns for Public Schools file an amicus brief in the Snow and Bramble case before the Utah Supreme Court.
June 7: Utah House Minority Leader Ralph Becker and Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich send a letter to Gov. Huntsman asking for a special session of the Legislature "to address the confusion associated with the ballot referendum on vouchers."
June 7: Attorney General Shurtleff sends letters to Utah State Office of Education attorneys Carol Lear and Jean Hill terminating their status as Special Assistant Attorney General, a title he gave them just weeks before. The Utah State Board of Education keeps Lear and Hill in their current positions on staff at the Utah State Office of Education.
Not only did he do everything in his power to support vouchers and prevent the matter from going before the voters, but he also used his power to intimidate and punish anyone who crosses him on a politically sensitive issue.

Well played Rob, well played.

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