Before February, the most controversial topic Brad Swedlund debated was the latest episode of "American Idol." Now lead sponsor of one of the state's most heated voter referendums, this self-described "Average Joe" has been the center of debates around Utah's Major League Soccer team.
The 50-year-old South Dakota native took on the monumental task of collecting nearly 92,000 signatures of residents, statewide, who opposed the state-backed Real Salt Lake stadium funding plan.
Strict requirements gave Swedlund and supporters of his group — Get Real Utah — a little more than 30 days to collect those signatures from at least 15 counties. They are due Monday — the same day Real finally begins construction on its $110 million stadium in Sandy.
"I do realize it's a long shot, but I'll be happy if it's just 3,000 signatures. I know we've made a political change," said Swedlund, a Salt Lake resident who has lived in Utah for 22 years. "I hope it sends a message, even if it's halfway successful."
What originally started out as water cooler talk has blossomed into a grass-roots effort involving local activists, and a handful of political leaders. (Swedlund keeps mum on names.)
Most have expressed the same shock Swedlund did after watching dozens of Utah's power-players step up to Real's aid after Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon denied public funding for the soccer stadium.
Swedlund decided "something had to be done" after Corroon shot down the funds for a third time in February, deeming it a risky investment. Days later, the state leaders pushed through a bill giving Real $35 million in Salt Lake County's hotel-tax dollars for land and infrastructure at the site. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. was one of its strongest backers and the bill received bipartisan support from both the House and Senate.
Corroon's decision was based on months of financial studies and public scrutiny, Swedlund notes. The state's, however, was made in a matter of days.
"I find that many many more people think the government is kind of broken right now and I'm not alone in that," he said. "People are disenchanted with government."
Wayne Holland, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, agrees. The state party sent out a notice to members last week, encouraging people to sign both the Real petition and the school vouchers petition, another voter referendum that has also been circulating since the legislative session ended.
"We have felt for quite some time that we have a Legislature that is too arrogant and has been there too long," Holland said. "It's time for the people of the state to remind the Legislature that the constitution gives them a co-equal role."
Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV polls show the majority of Utahns believe the Legislature should not have given Real public money.
"The people in the state had to remind the Legislature that when you do these things, cut deals and what not, there was going to be some activist in the state that would get started," he said of Swedlund.
But until the state reports the amount (their deadline is April 24), no one is really sure how many signatures Get Real Utah has actually garnered.
Early petition drive efforts listed the count at 35,000. But Swedlund had some eight to nine boxes of petitions he sent all over the state to anyone that stepped up to distribute, making it literally impossible to keep track of how many have been collected so far. Those petitions are being sent directly to the respective county clerks for certification, then to the state for final checks.
Swedlund took a week off work in March and drove across the state in a 13-county tour to collect signatures. He's spent hundreds out of his own pocket (the whole effort has cost $2,000) and thinks, if anything, "we've had a little impact on them."
He points to a slew of full-page color ads that ran in the Deseret Morning News, detailing terms of the stadium deal. Then there's the Web site Real has set up to combat what it calls misinformation about the stadium package, www.rslstadium.com.
In an interview Thursday, Real owner Dave Checketts said those ads are part of "Real Week," the week leading up to the first home game of the season, which happened Saturday. He noted they were to clear up confusion surrounding funding.
"There had been enough misinformation that we were obligated not to fight anybody," he said, "but inform the state."
Checketts points out that the money is not being taken away from schools, but from a tourism tax that is collected mostly from out-of-state residents.
"I know it's part of the political process," Checketts said of the referendum. "They certainly have a right to do what they feel is right. What I'm concerned about is there is a lot of misinformation about this project."
Sandy city is also combating the confusion. Shortly after those signatures are tabulated on April 24, Sandy plans to send out mailers explaining the stadium funding. In May, the city will also have available a 30-minute DVD.
"I know we've made a political change," Swedlund said. "I know it."