Two news threads I have followed the past week have an odd connection that could be significant in the coming months for the Republican Party nationally, and here in Utah.
The national story was the resignation from Mitt Romney's campaign of Richard Grenell, a gay former official in the Bush administration who had been retained as a foreign policy spokesman.
Grenell said he resigned because of the strong negative reaction his inclusion in the campaign had received from some fundamentalist Christian factions in the GOP. For example, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association did a dance in the end zone, taking credit for Grenell's resignation and boasting that Romney "will never make that mistake again."
Fischer has also bashed Mormons, claiming they aren't Christians and don't deserve First Amendment protections. Romney, to his credit, took Fischer on for that assault. But Grenell's exit signals that the fundamentalist homophobes in the party are still calling the shots.
A more interesting development, to me, is what happened in Utah.
Conservative Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is a co-host of Red Meat Radio, a program devoted to conservative causes that airs Saturday mornings on K-Talk. Last week, he spent an entire hour on bullying in the schools and the suicides that too often result from the bullying. And he did something conservative Republican legislators in Utah are usually fearful of doing.
Stephenson sided with advocates of the gay and lesbian community who believe that anti-bullying legislation and policies should protect specific victims of bullying, including gay and lesbian students. He was driven to that position, at least in part, by watching the documentary "Bullied" and becoming repulsed by the epidemic of suicides by children who have been harassed in school because they are gay or perceived as gay.
Stephenson's endorsement of a specific cloak of protection for gay and lesbian teens puts him at odds with much of his conservative base in Utah, especially Gayle Ruzicka of the Utah Eagle Forum, who has made and broken the political careers of legislators with her disciplined nest of acolytes. She usually takes to the ramparts over any kind of protection for gays and lesbians.
When Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, sponsored an anti-bullying bill a few years ago, she thought she had conservative stalwart Chris Buttars as her Senate co-sponsor. He had been the director of a correctional school for troubled teens and told her he knew all too well the effects of bullying.
But he balked at including protected categories, including for gays and lesbians, telling Moss it would erode his base of support. She got another Senate sponsor, but ended up chucking the specific categories in order to get the bill passed.
The Eagle Forum, like some of the national fundamentalist groups, is constantly warning about a "gay agenda." The group was a major player in the fight against gay clubs in high schools and against laws that protected gays and lesbians from housing and employment discrimination. This year, the Eagles fought to get Utah out of the Common Core agreement with other states that developed rigorous standards in language arts and math. The reason? Fear that pro-gay concepts would somehow creep into the curriculum.
Some legislators told me they voted against the Common Core, which they actually respect, to avoid the vengeful wrath of the Ruzicka-ites. Stephenson, with his stand, is taking on that very base that has supported him in the past.
I, for one, hope he wins.