With their optimism about their chances of securing Utah's highest office already juiced, Democrats have started to turn their sights toward mounting a serious challenge for the Salt Lake County mayoral post.
Although nobody has formally announced intentions to oppose Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman, county party leaders have been actively working to recruit a strong enough candidate to topple the incumbent mayor, who they view as vulnerable. They would like to find somebody who would treat county government as more than just a business to manage, said Nicole Adams, county party chairwoman.
"The most important attribute is leadership, and we've seen a lack of it," Adams said. "Being able to run a corporation is one thing, but there are plenty of people under the mayor who can do that well. We want a candidate with a vision for the county."
While none has committed to running, many prominent Democrats have been recruited, including former U.S. Rep. Bill Orton, Sen. Paula Julander, Councilman Jim Bradley, District Attorney David Yocom, Rep. Karen Morgan and former Salt Lake Mayor Ted Wilson. Almost a dozen people have either been asked or have contacted the party about challenging Workman.
The Democratic focus on the county mayor's office stems, in large part, from the fact that the mayor represents 898,387 people, more than any of the three U.S. House of Representatives districts and almost 30 times as many people as a member of the Utah House represents. Despite that constituency, the mayor's job is often done in relative obscurity, primarily because of the nature of county government.
The Democratic focus has not gone unnoticed in Republican circles, although county Republican Party Chairwoman Tiani Coleman was confident that Workman would be re-elected.
"She'll be a big target for the Democrats, so we are taking it very seriously," Coleman said. "She's a strong candidate, has a lot of supporters and is a good campaigner, but we will watch it very closely."
With a half-million county residents also part of a city, however, the operations of county government often go unnoticed or are credited (and blamed) on city officials, not county leaders. For those half-million people, their mayor is whoever is leading their city, not the county mayor. Concern about that type of obscurity was a primary reason for a recent decision to prominently display stickers with Workman's name on every entrance, exit and any other vacant space at county facilities.
Defeating Workman will be a daunting task. Already, she has a war chest of approximately $300,000 and is familiar to voters. More importantly, she has avoided any tax increases during her tenure and has expanded county services with programs such as recycling. She has also kept conflicts to a minimum, having only sporadic conflicts with Sheriff Aaron Kennard about law enforcement funding and District Attorney David Yocom about the location of offices for his attorneys.
Workman, who plans to start seriously campaigning this fall or early next year, said that while she has "heard names, but nobody has really stuck" from the Democrats, she expects a tough race. She also would not be surprised if she had to survive convention and primary battles with opponents from her own party.
"People will jump up for one reason or another, and people will come from within my party," she said. "We're Republicans, and we always have a lot of candidates."
One of those rumored challengers, Councilman Steve Harmsen, said that he does not have plans to challenge Workman, nor had he heard of other Republican challengers. Because of a large tax increase passed by the County Commission at the end of 2000, he said that "she has had a free pass" on budget problems, meaning that the "real test" will come if she is re-elected.
"I think the mayor has done a good job, and there's nothing overwhelming to criticize her about," he said.
As for the Democrats, rumors have swirled for months around Bradley, a politician who has proven his ability to win in Salt Lake County as both a commissioner and, currently, as an at-large council member. However, he said that while he would like to be mayor, family commitments will most likely keep him from running against Workman. He said the biggest obstacle was the length and cost of a mayoral campaign, which he estimated at about $400,000 and, at the very least, six months.
Regardless, he said that Workman could be defeated by the right candidate.
"I don't think her record has been that great, but there haven't been any red flags, either," he said. "It's a Republican county, but she is beatable. You're gonna have to have a lot of panache, a lot of fun, and catch people's attention."
Along with Bradley, other rumored Democrats who have declined to run include Rep. Pat Jones, former legislator Dave Jones, Councilman Randy Horiuchi and Wilson, although he is reportedly thinking about a run for the County Council. Gov. Mike Leavitt's spokesman, Rich McKeon, has also declined to run, despite some Republicans claiming he was going to run as a Democrat and Democrats hearing he would challenge Workman as a Republican.
Among those still considering, Orton would be the most recognizable, having served in Congress and having defeated Leavitt in Salt Lake County during the 2000 gubernatorial election. He did not return phone calls asking for comments.
As far as political names, Julander would bring clout to the race. She would also have an advantage because she would not have to give up her Senate position — unless she won — since her seat is not up for re-election until 2006.
"People are asking about it, but I have not contemplated it very seriously. I haven't said yes, and I haven't said no," she said. "If I were going to be in the race, I would want to be in no later than December."
Along with established politicians, the mayoral race may also bring new faces into the political arena for Democrats. Among those who might consider the race are Beau Babka, who has experience in countywide campaigns after challenging Kennard in 2002; Michael Broussard, who ran for the County Commission six years ago; former television reporter Phil Riesen; and Maura Carabello, a political consultant who has managed two congressional campaigns.
Carabello said that she would only consider running if the party could not find a candidate — regardless of their name — who was willing to commit to a long, hard-fought campaign.
"It will be a down race on the ballot, but very important to both of the Mathesons," she said. "I would be disappointed if we don't field a strong candidate. If they need a candidate, I won't shy away, but there are other people with long histories."