The $400,000 question this week is: Can Ellis Ivory actually win a write-in Salt Lake County mayor's race?
The immediate answer would be "no."
A write-in has not won a major race in Utah before, and history is a pretty good indicator of the future.
But that "no" answer is too simplistic and shoot-from-the-hip, says Joe Cannon, Utah state Republican Party chairman. "The support Ellis is seeing is unprecedented. Just unprecedented," says Cannon.
But the odds against Ivory are great. And it's not just historic precedent. There's the question of time: Ivory's campaign won't take off until three weeks before the Nov. 2 election. There's organization: Until his Wednesday announcement, he had none. There's name I.D.: He's never run for office before, although many people know his family business — Ivory Homes. There's an actual campaign message: Ivory has one, but it's not exactly uplifting. He says he won't take a salary, won't drive a county car, won't use a county credit card and won't take any influence-pedaling campaign contributions.
Basically, Ivory is saying he won't be a crook or be bought off. That standard alone shows the sad state of county politics.
But Ivory will have some help.
While officially the state GOP must recognize that current county Mayor Nancy Workman has the Republican Party's nomination — and Workman won't quit the race — in all other ways, says Cannon, the power, money and organization of the Republican Party will be behind Ivory.
Ivory says he won't be running as a Republican. And, of course, his name won't be on the ballot; won't be under the GOP banner. But he's clearly a Republican; served as the state party's national committeeman in the 1970s.
Cannon says Ivory will have the party's county voter lists and will be part of the state party's massive turn-out-the-vote effort just before the Nov. 2 election. If any big-shot Republicans come to town — like Vice President Dick Cheney showing up to help GOP 2nd District candidate John Swallow — you can bet Ivory will be there.
This past week, the Salt Lake County GOP's central committee voted to support Ivory, removing its endorsement from Workman, who faces a post-election trial on two felony charges of misuse of public funds for paying for two bookkeepers for a boys-and-girls club where Workman's daughter was the financial manager.
Thursday morning, the state party's Elephant Club — the big hitters who donate $1,000 or so to the party — endorsed Ivory. "And I will personally endorse him, as well," says Cannon, who is not in the habit of endorsing non-GOP candidates.
Cannon says local businessmen "are flocking" to Ivory's cause. "You will see a long list of political" types endorsing him as well — as GOP stalwarts desert Workman. And, promises Cannon, a goodly number of Democrats, too, will soon be publicly endorsing Ivory — people not happy with either Democrat Peter Corroon or independent candidate (former Repub- lican) Merrill Cook.
But will this understandably enthusiastic wave of Ivory love continue?
At it's heart, Workman's troubles are based in a core belief that there's corruption in Salt Lake County government — a government many believe has been run by insiders for the benefit of other insiders, political cronies and monied county interests.
And Ivory is the founder and former president of the state's largest homebuilding company — Ivory Homes. While Ivory Homes has no subdivisions pending before the county now, certainly in the past the firm (now run by Ivory's son) has often been at the county's door — and the Ivorys are well known in county and state political circles.
Corroon and Cook clearly see Ivory as a legitimate challenger — they are already taking swipes at him, saying a county run by a developer is not an improvement over Workman. But will that mud stick? That question is just one of many political "what if's."
What if Ivory — using his own pledged $400,000 — mails a ballot write-in sticker with his name on it to every household in the county? What if Ivory, along with the state GOP, call into tens of thousands of Republican-voting homes just before the election, encouraging people to vote for President Bush, Sen. Bob Bennett, gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. and congressional candidates John Swallow, Chris Cannon and Rob Bishop and Ellis Ivory?
What if Ivory is seen in TV ads endorsed by and standing next to well-respected GOP businessmen and politicians? What if the cause of electing a write-in Republican, certainly a novelty, really takes off?
Well, we'll see.
But remember this, too. Citizens seem to be sincerely disgusted and angry over the county scandals. And those in charge during the scandals were Republicans. Certainly not Ivory himself, but Republicans just the same. Is there a voter-revenge factor?
The county's politics are changing, becoming more moderate. Workman defeated Democrat Karen Crompton only 52 percent to 48 percent in the 2000 elections. That same year, then-GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt, on his way to a third, four-year term, actually lost Salt Lake County to Democratic chal- lenger Bill Orton. In 2002, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, won the Salt Lake County portion of his 2nd Congressional District — which is GOP-leaning — with 60 percent of the vote.
And Democratic County Councilmen Randy Horiuchi and Jim Bradley hold two at-large, countywide council seats. County District Attorney Dave Yocom, a Democrat, likewise has won a countywide race.
In other words, even if Ivory were on the ballot as the GOP nominee — which he won't be — there's no guarantee he would win.
Salt Lake County is not Davis or Utah County — where GOP candidates must only be breathing and not currently in jail to win an election. Who would have thought, however, that at last March's candidate filing deadline the Salt Lake County mayor's race would have turned out to be the most interesting, soap opera affair this year?
And if Ivory somehow does pull out a write-in victory, it definitely will be a political record-setting event.
Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com