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High-level wrangling finally yields a Games chairman

Every once in a while a matter comes along that exposes the fissures and cracks in Utah's culture. If the issue is hot enough, a little of the molten controversy that usually bubbles quietly beneath society's surface seeps through the seams. Some people and institutions get burned.

Such an issue has been playing out behind the scenes over the past few weeks as high powers in government and business circles have jockeyed over the appointment of an Olympics chairman.The wrangling ostensibly was between Gov. Mike Leavitt and Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini, who were charged with jointly appointing the SLOC chair.

Leavitt initially wanted former House Speaker Nolan Karras, while Corradini wanted Spence Eccles, head of First Security Corp. The controversy eventually spilled over into much bigger circles and brought into play some of the contrasts in Utah society.

While SLOC leadership itself is vitally important as Utah prepares for the 2002 Winter Games, the intrigue behind the eventual appointment of Robert Garff as SLOC chairman is an interesting commentary on contemporary Utah.

The dispute over the chairmanship has been characterized at least three different ways:

- As a fight between those who want stronger government oversight over the Olympics and those who don't. This included a secondary theme that the chairman should be someone who understands how to operate in the public/political arena as an articulate spokesperson and legislative lobbyist.

- As a fight between the "commoners" and the "royalty" or "average Joes" vs. the "Main Street business elite."

- As a fight between establishment Mormons and wealthy business leaders who are not Mormons.

The truth is that elements of all three themes fit this fracas.

The biggest factor was undoubtedly government oversight vs. private control. Public money is involved in the construction of Olympics facilities, and the governor and especially the Legislature were clearly concerned about the vibes they got from some organizers who seemed to resent what they viewed as government meddling.

On the other side, some of the Main Street business types properly feared government micromanagement. They were furious that anyone from bureaucratic government would dare question the management skills of people who have built businesses, made payrolls and prospered in the free market.

Despite the fact that Karras has made a successful living entirely as a businessman, he was viewed as too close to politics, too close to the governor, too much of a watchdog.

Eccles, on the other hand, was viewed by his detractors as not having the political and public relations skills to deal with the Legislature and the news media. The combination of Joklik and Eccles, both rather aristocratic and used to giving orders and having them fulfilled, was way too much for consumer advocacy groups who felt SLOC leadership would lack a "common touch."

The Mormon/not-Mormon theme was much more subtle, but nevertheless there. The LDS Church clearly did not inject itself into this issue, and religious affiliations obviously were never discussed. But the sides generally (but not always) tended to break down along Mormon/not-Mormon lines, creating a little underlying tension. One board member rather resented a comment, seemingly directed to the Mormons on the board, to the effect that, "We can't allow the handcart to become the symbol of these Games."

So now that the tumult is over, who are the winners and losers in this little drama? It obviously wasn't much fun for Karras and Eccles, both fine men of great accomplishment, to be hanging way out there on the limb with all sorts of people sawing away. They were fair game for cheap shots, victims of forces at play far larger than they could control. It was especially unfair for Karras to be somehow tarnished because of rumors he might one day want to run for political office. If he harbored such ambitions, it would only make him more accountable to the people. That somehow disqualified him? Plenty of grumbling is still going on among conservative legislators that Leavitt blinked when he should have battled, that he lost momentum in the fight for control and power, that he didn't prove a hard-nosed political infighter.

Leavitt, however, has already started a comeback with his appointment of former LDS leader John Fowler as state Olympics coordinator. He will also try to re-capture momentum with a big speech next week.

It's hard to assess the impact on Corradini, who neither won nor lost. She had all sorts of political bruises to heal before this issue, so a tie is probably a victory for her.

A clear winner is Bob Garff, who had a high-profile, interesting position drop right into his lap.

One smart-aleck said Garff was acceptable to both sides because, "He is part of the wine and cheese crowd, but he doesn't drink the wine."

As many people and many commentaries and many editorials will say many times from here on, it's time to unite behind the SLOC leadership, go forward and forget this stuff. There's a big job to do and not a lot of time left.