It was a bruising exchange at a University of Utah forum Tuesday, where District 6 challenger Charlie Luke cast incumbent J.T. Martin as a grouch living off his father-in-law, and Martin challenged Luke as a lobbyist beholden to special interests. The two were only caught off guard when a student at the forum asked what they thought the other candidate’s best quality was.
It was a question met with immediate applause from an audience oftentimes taken aback by the testy exchanges between the two candidates. Pressed to speak nicely about each other, the two men awkwardly complimented each other as fathers and husbands, Martin complimented Luke’s well-kept yard, and Luke spoke well of Martin as a “passionate” individual. But it was just one momentary ceasefire in an hour-long event filled with tough attacks.
Luke, a planning commissioner, who owns his own government-affairs and public-relations firm, from the outset challenged Martin on his brusque behavior he said was scaring constituents away from being involved in city government. “The best way to stifle public involvement is to have leaders that discredit that involvement,” Luke said in reference to media accounts of Martin getting into shouting matches with constituents.
“My grumpiness has taken on a life of its own, thanks to Mr. Luke, but really, I’m not. You can ask anyone but my children,” Martin deadpanned. “But I am very intense, and I love what I do.”
Martin and Luke did speak to city issues such as plans for a convention hotel in downtown Salt Lake City, with Luke wanting to wait before committing to the hotel, while Martin felt the city needed to invest now to keep tourism dollars coming in from groups like the Outdoor Retailer’s Convention. But the majority of the forum was an ugly back-and-forth between the two men challenging each other on conflicts of interest.
Martin pointed out that, as a lobbyist, who has previously represented groups like Reagan Outdoor Advertising, Luke would be conflicted between serving the public and special interests with business before the city. Luke, in turn, said Martin had failed to mention that his father-in-law, Kem Gardner, who developed the Gateway Mall, was “one of the biggest developers in the state” who provided “family money” to his campaign.
“Past clients do not represent a conflict because they are past clients,” Luke said. “What he is saying here is that anyone who has worked for any issue in the past is now going to be prohibited from service? That would exclude pretty much everybody except for those who are living off their father-in-law.”
“Wow, that was a pretty low blow,” Martin responded.
In another exchange, Luke had said that he had spoken with one of the city’s attorneys and had been told his profession was not a problem—to which Martin immediately interrupted, “Which city attorney? Name the attorney, name him!” Martin asked. When Luke responded, Martin did not believe him. “You’re telling a story,” Martin said.
In an interview with City Weekly, Luke defended calling out Martin for being hostile with constituents. He says that leadership is why 71 percent of voters in last week’s primary voted either for him or Tracey Harty, who was eliminated in the primary. Luke says Martin’s critique of his lobbying was unfair since he simply can recuse himself from any council business involving a current client. He says Martin’s new line of attack shows he is campaigning from a “point of desperation.”
Martin says it’s still a major issue to have a government lobbyist sitting at the same time as elected officials. As for his demeanor, Martin rebuffs that as a campaign ploy.
“Am I going to receive the Mr. Chuckles award? No,” Martin told City Weekly. “I’m paid to look out for my constituents and build my city and look to the future. And during election time, yes, it is a popularity contest—but it shouldn’t be.”