News | Wallets: Open: Now, even the SLC mayor is running an endless campaign 

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It was the third week of March and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker’s backers, still celebrating getting their man into the city’s top job, got a shock in the form of a letter from the new mayor.

He wanted more money.

“These first few months in office have been a whirlwind and I love it!” the mayor of two months proclaimed. “Now, however, I would like to talk to you about my need to maintain an ongoing campaign.” Becker wrote he would keep his campaign office open permanently with a staff person. The vote-for-Ralph campaign Website would stay up as well to keep supporters informed and encourage painless online donations.

Becker closed the letter with a reminder: “We are just beginning a new campaign cycle and donors are once again able to give up to $7,500.”

It was the emergence in Salt Lake City of a phenomenon already well known in Washington, D.C.: the permanent political fund-raiser. It isn’t just that costs of running for city offices have exploded—although spending in November’s elections broke records for both the mayor’s race and City Council contests. The practice of measuring a politician’s power by the size of his or her war chest has found its way to City Hall.

Donors who responded to the mayor’s March appeal should by this time have received another invitation, this time to Becker’s “First Annual Paint the Town Blue Extravaganza and Gala Event.” Set for May 14, the fund-raiser features music by the Saliva Sisters for a suggested donation of $150 per person, or $1,000 for a table of 10.

Kelly Patterson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, says money is of growing importance in local politics as expensive campaign techniques commonplace in the U.S. Congress are “seeping down into these lower levels of government.”

In Salt Lake County, in particular, Patterson says, growing communities and increasingly competitive races demand sophisticated campaigns. “Local elections now have the same apparatus that we once normally attributed only to the most competitive federal races,” he says.

Becker isn’t the only recent candidate to continue fund-raising after winning office. Salt Lake County’s 2006 winners Sheriff Jim Winder and District Attorney Lohra Miller both continued fundraising last year. But the candidates were paying down loans they had made to their campaigns. Becker’s campaign is paid for. The project he’s now launched is larger.

Salt Lake City’s mayor plans to use much of the money he raises not for his own re-election, but to grease the fortunes of other Democrats in Salt Lake County and perhaps even the statehouse. It’s a practice he’s bringing from his years in Utah’s Legislature.

As longtime leader of legislative House Democrats, Becker consistently gave to the county party and was a member of the state Democrats’ Chair’s Circle of $1,000-plus party donors. He plans to continue both activities as mayor. Additionally, Becker says, he’ll contribute to civic organizations and, likely, to individual candidates. He’s already donated to Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon’s re-election fund.

Such spreading the wealth is common in D.C., where Utah’s senators Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett have long controlled so-called “leadership political action committees” used to dole out money to others running for office. In Utah’s Legislature, recent years have seen legislators vying for leadership positions making handouts to poorer legislators from campaign war chests worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Becker says he sees off-year fundraising as “helping to provide a support system to Democrats in Utah.” Additionally, he’ll use extra campaign cash to pay for some expenses of being mayor he doesn’t think city taxpayers should have to cover— like entertaining visitors or attending fund-raising meetings of city-interest groups.

Of course, a healthy campaign war chest will also come in handy if Becker seeks re-election. Last year’s mayoral contest was the most expensive yet with candidates spending $2.4 million combined, nearly doubling the outlay for the city’s 2003 mayoral contest.

Former Mayor Rocky Anderson, at $779,000, still holds the record for most ever spent by a single Salt Lake City mayoral candidate. But Becker comes in second at $695,000. And, unlike 2003—when Anderson was the only contender to spend more than a half million dollars—nearly all last year’s crop spent freely. Keith Christensen spent $642,000; Jenny Wilson $546,000; and Dave Buhler $493,000.

Salt Lake City Council race spending also exploded, with November’s contenders spending a combined $185,000—up $85,000 from two years previous despite one fewer council spot on the ballot.

The price of an individual City Council seat doubled from 2005. Two years ago, winning candidates in contested Salt Lake City Council races spent around $18,000. In November’s race, new Councilman Luke Garrott spent $35,000 to oust Nancy Saxton, while Councilman J.T. Martin spent $55,000 to win a hotly contested open Sugar House seat. As in the mayoral campaign, the biggest spender won both races.

Such escalating costs keep Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder on the campaign fund-raising trail more than two years after he took office, still trying to pay down $80,000 of personal debt from his 2006 campaign.

But Winder says, even if he was debt-free, he’d still be raising money and looking forward to his re-election 2010 bid. Meeting the cost of a countywide election, he has discovered, takes years.

Becker made a name as a state legislator with continuous attempts at ethics and campaign reform. He says he plans more of the same as Salt Lake City mayor and will ask the City Council to tighten city campaign-finance rules.

“We have a system that’s set up for the way that politics gets run in this country, this state and this city that I don’t agree with,” says Becker, who backs public campaign financing. “But, it’s the way the system is set up.”

For his May 14 gala, the mayor has invited state lawmakers representing Salt Lake City to attend for free as a boost to the lawmakers’ campaigns. Between Saliva Sisters sets, Salt Lake City’s mayor will ask the lawmakers to take a bow—under the Becker banner.

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