There’s a gang war on the east side. A political turf tussle is eating up the foothills, turning neighbor against neighbor, as local residents ally with one faction over the other and rep their colors via cheap vinyl campaign signs on their finely manicured front yards. Original Gangster J.T. Martin, the incumbent District 6 councilman, is taking on the new kid on the block, planning commissioner and lobbyist Charlie Luke.
Calling a city councilman O.G. may seem unfair, until one checks out J.T. Martin’s Grunt: a hulking, Hummer-like yellow beast, pimped out with campaign signs, parked across from Martin’s Yalecrest neighborhood home.
“It’s subtle,” Martin says in his signature deadpan. “Just like me.” As for turf war, Martin acknowledges that this is not his first time dealing with Luke, who actually was the campaign manager for Roger McConkie, the candidate Martin bested in 2008 to become District 6’s councilman.
“I always thought there was a bit of a grudge match,” Martin says of his competition.
For Martin, the brashly outspoken and intensely driven city councilman, the Grunt is an appropriate chariot for doing campaign work. This morning’s routine calls for starting the day with the morning ritual of raising a nearly 30-foot-high banner on a retired fire engine on Foothill Drive, and then hitting the ’hood to put up some campaign signs.
Things do not quite go according to plan. Moments after the giant “J.T. Working for You” banner is proudly unfurled before Foothill’s morning rush-hour commute, a black Subaru comes to a quick stop, and a white truck comes to a less-than-quick stop behind it. A minivan and another car come to even quicker, crunching stops as they plow into either side of the white truck. Pieces of vehicle shower the street in front of Martin and a City Weekly reporter, forcing the point he’s making about crime on the east side to come to its own screeching halt.
For Martin, a candidate whose temper has become his biggest campaign liability, this is not an ideal situation to have a reporter taking notes for. Nevertheless, Martin quickly puts himself to doing what he can: calling the police and giving them detailed specifics on the crash—and the fact that he was a city councilman—and how to find the wreck. A few kids in one vehicle are shook up, but no one is hurt. Martin dutifully fills out a witness report and offers one woman the use of a spare car back at his house if she needs it.
“All right … so, moving on,” Martin says finally as the Grunt lurches away from the crash scene, now an hour behind schedule.
It’s hard to get back to policy points, though, after witnessing such a terrifically destructive three-car pile-up. But what is most telling is Martin’s reaction. He doesn’t exactly brush it off, but the councilman does tackle the unexpected with trademark intensity—the same kind of laser-like intensity that has become a major campaign issue for Martin, as his opponent Luke has capitalized on past accounts of Martin turning his laser on citizens who have disagreed with him at public hearings. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that, in 2010, Martin got in an argument with a citizen advocate for city dog parks and followed her outside the meeting and into the parking lot to continue berating her. The advocate said Martin even later hurled a drive-by profanity at her while passing her in the neighborhood—which Martin adamantly denies.
He does not deny, however, calling people out and not sugarcoating his objections to people. But the important thing, Martin says, is that he saves his jabs for bullies who abuse the public process.
“Every time someone thinks I’ve been grumpy, it’s been in a public process where bullies—and they’ve been bullies all along—control things, and I’ve said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ ”
Martin regrets the tone he’s taken at times, but relishes picking a good fight. He’s particularly proud of calling out former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who stepped in during a hearing on the controversial plan to create a historic district for the Yalecrest neighborhood. Leavitt, a Yalecrest resident, criticized the council for the process and suggested the Legislature handle the issue.
Martin, in turn, jokingly addresses the former governor as “citizen Leavitt” and challenges his suggestion as “absolutely wrong,” Martin says. “This is a municipal, in-your-living-room local issue, and we don’t need the Legislature dealing with this.” Martin points out that Leavitt, along with the developers who demolished many old homes in the district, are now campaign supporters of his rival, Luke.
Martin says it’s hard to pin down the source of his so-called surliness. While he’s a third-generation east-bencher, he thinks some of his attitude developed during the time he spent out of Utah, working in Ohio and overseas in Europe.
“I spent so much time outside the state in a career with national and international companies, where you say what you mean, you mean what you say and you get the job done,” Martin says. “And with none of this passive aggressiveness—you just go.”
It’s the reason Martin hopes that he can just run on his record. He’s got cred with the locavores who still hail Martin’s urban-chicken ordinance, and local greenies give Martin a high-five for having permanently preserved 19.5 acres of open space in the district since his term started in 2008.
For being a polarizing figure, Martin also argues that he invests passion and intensity into issues, but largely tries to keep the ball in the public’s court. He recently secured $75,000 to fund the Foothill Drive/Parley’s Way Master plan that will help residents decide the future of the eastern gateway into the city.
“I started the group and funded the money, but then I turned it over to the community,” Martin says.
He’s also got plans for the future, including resurrecting near-extinct bus services in his district by arranging a partnership with the University of Utah’s shuttle service to help bring more mass transit to the bench, since the Utah Transit Authority has been focusing on larger regional projects.
Martin plans to keep being an aggressive campaigner and aggressive councilman—even if his brand of bare-knuckle politics makes him a one-termer on the council.
“I’m not a politician, not in the sense of being so cautious about not getting re-elected,” Martin says calmly of his straight-shooting style, with one hand relaxed on the steering wheel of his Grunt. “That’s not how I roll.”
Charlie Luke has been cast by his opponent J.T. Martin as a lobbyist eying his seat on the council as a chance to steer city money to his lobbying clients—to get voted in so he can cash in. While Luke runs his own government-lobbying firm and has represented clients ranging from Intermountain Healthcare to the Utah Transit Authority in the past, before he was a lobbyist he was a political junkie always working for other people’s campaigns and waiting for the day he would run his own.
Among those in Salt Lake City’s council races, Luke is the most polished candidate. He’s got baby-kissing charm and the confidence of someone who’s been there and done that, even if he hasn’t held office himself.
“For about 20 years, I’ve run a number of different campaigns,” Luke says to a young couple hanging outside Einstein Bagels on 15th and 15th. “Going from the campaign manager side to the candidate side has been interesting,” he says, unable to resist breaking into a goofy grin.
But for a smart and politically savvy candidate, Luke’s made a platform on a very unsexy cause—potholes.
Not just potholes, of course, but other issues like water, sewer and basic infrastructure projects he says past administrations have neglected during tough budgets, favoring instead “shiny new toys,” as he calls proposed big city projects like a new convention hotel and performing-arts center.
“It’s hard to campaign on ‘Let’s fix a road that’s still drivable, let’s fix a water line that still brings water to your house, let’s fix a sewer line that is still pumping your … stuff away,’ ” Luke says as we begin our pothole patrol of District 6. “But it needs to be done.” As we roam the idyllic Norman Rockwellian, tree-lined streets of the east bench, Luke points out numerous stretches on Princeton, Herbert and other streets where potholes mar the road. One mini-crater even marks the road at the intersection of 1700 East and 1300 South where Martin’s former business, Emigration Market (now a Harmons), is located.
Cruising past the Yalecrest neighborhood, Luke points out the only road-fixing project currently under way in the district, a major repair at Yalecrest and Military—just outside of Martin’s home.
“I think that speaks for itself,” Luke says.
Luke makes the argument that infrastructure and city services can’t be pushed to the back burner during tough budgets, but need to stay up front. But he also believes the city hasn’t explored other revenue options for funding the upkeep of city parks by, say, seeking corporate sponsors to help fund projects in exchange for naming rights.
He also points to the Bonneville Golf Course as a prime example of how old systems leak city money the way the course’s aged water system leaks H20.
“We talk about how important it is to be a sustainable city … and yet we have one of the oldest and nicest golf courses in the city using a manual-crank, 80-year-old irrigation system,” Luke says.
Luke also hopes he can make municipal services become a priority again, arguing that small neighborhood businesses like the new Caputo’s Market & Deli location on 15th and 15th is a prime example of the city’s red tape nearly putting down a viable small business.
Troy Peterson, who opened the new branch of the popular Italian deli on the east side, says that negotiating the city’s permit process was nightmarish.
“We might have re-thought the location if we would have known what it takes,” Peterson says. Luke counts the near loss of the popular deli as cause for the city to consider creating a business-mentoring program to help fledgling businesses get up and running and start contributing to the local economy.
While Luke’s position on infrastructure might not grab headlines, his needling of Martin for his temper is resonating. The political bug bit Luke early, at age 13, when he knocked on doors campaigning for his junior high vice principal, who was running for the Legislature. But for others, engaging in politics might not be as easy—and it doesn’t get easier, Luke says, if residents hear about their city councilman berating citizens for speaking up at public meetings.
“If there were just one outburst, you could overlook it, but you have a pattern,” Luke says. “I know [Martin] is a passionate guy and he loves what he’s doing, but the district deserves new leadership that understands how to work with people.”
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