Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Winder scandal could impact future campaigns

Published: Sunday, Nov. 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Mike Winder, mayor of West Valley City, poses outside his office in West Valley Tuesday, November 8, 2011.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

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It's Thanksgiving week, and a cornucopia of political intrigue demands analysis before we settle into holiday cheer. Salt Lake County politics, including the mayoral race, is becoming rather exciting. Here are some morsels to chew on:

West Valley Mayor Mike Winder has all but announced his candidacy for the county mayor GOP nomination. However, Winder revealed last week that he had submitted a number of news stories to this paper and other publications under a fake name and even provided a fake photo. This indiscretion received widespread coverage in Utah, across the country, and even in Europe. Will this be a problem or a benefit to Winder in his quest for countywide office?

Pignanelli: "Men are so simple and yield so readily to the desires of the moment that he who will trick will always find another who will suffer to be tricked." — Niccolo Machiavelli

After the appropriate mea culpas, West Valley residents and most County Republican delegates are likely to forgive Winder's actions as silly but well-intentioned. His troubles lie elsewhere.

Journalists are a strange lot. You can scream obscenities and even spit at them, but they refuse to be offended because that is your First Amendment right. But when a politician uses a disguise to plant stories that benefit his constituents and thereby enhance his standing, seething hostility is the result.

Winder should be prepared for the journalistic equivalent of an invasive medical procedure into a body cavity. Reporters are examining his various business and political pursuits to uncover other missteps. Any statements he delivers as a candidate or mayor will be subject to severe scrutiny. The media will remind voters, on a regular basis, about this controversy. This will be his burden during the campaign.

Webb: This escapade hurts a lot. To his credit, Winder confessed his duplicity to Deseret News/KSL, apparently suffering a guilty conscience. That's good. We're a forgiving people. But Winder, who has been a good friend of mine for some time, took this fakery way too far. Beyond merely writing under a "pen name," it became brazen dishonesty.

On a personal level, I was concerned about a story a few months ago that appeared on KSL.com about a friend of mine, Chris Hogan, written by Richard Burwash. I thought the story was slanted and unfair, so I sent an e-mail message to KSL complaining about it. Imagine my surprise when I learned along with everyone else that "Burwash" was actually Mayor Mike Winder.

One thing though, this Burwash guy is (was?) a clever writer. Very creative. He might want to try some fiction.

Earlier this summer, Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for county mayor. Romero has been working Democratic delegates since then. Last week, Romero's colleague, Democratic Sen. Ben McAdams, also became a contender for county mayor. How does this interparty squabble impact the race?

Webb: It's great that the Democrats will have a tough intraparty battle, fighting each other and spending money on convention and likely primary fights, instead of saving all their ammo for Republicans. Romero and McAdams are both solid candidates and the Republicans will have to nominate a highly competent, mainstream candidate to beat either of them. This will be a fascinating mayoral race.

Pignanelli: Romero and McAdams are popular Democrats and enjoy strong support from various constituencies. Barring any missteps, this contest will not be resolved until the late June primary — delaying monetary support for the general election. County Republicans can afford such a fight; the Democrats cannot.

The Salt Lake County Council, on a bipartisan vote, recently approved transferring budget responsibilities from the county auditor to the county mayor's office. In retaliation, County Auditor Greg Hawkins is threatening a lawsuit to prevent the change. Is this just typical county machinations or an indication of changes to come?

Pignanelli: County officials were upset with the former auditor, Jeff Hatch, and pushed for this change two years ago. They held off as a courtesy to the newly elected Hawkins. However, the trend of this internal disagreement is in the right direction. The weird county government structure originated in the Paleozoic era needs to be dumped.

Webb: Salt Lake County government has far too many elected officials. Its executive branch is extremely weak because power is divided among several elected people. Executive branch authority should be centralized in the mayor's office. The buck should stop there.

Imagine if, in the federal government, in addition to the president, a half dozen other top positions were independently elected. We could have a Democratic president and a Republican U.S. attorney general or secretary of state. What a mess that would be. The federal government would be even more dysfunctional than it now is.

That's the situation today in county government. The mayor doesn't really have control. We have plenty of checks and balances with separate executive, legislative and judicial branches. We don't need executive power chopped up among a bunch of different officials with different agendas and priorities. So giving budget responsibilities to the mayor is a small step toward modernizing county government.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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