Candidates go through delegates' stomachs to win hearts, minds

Published: Monday, April 9 2012 12:17 a.m. MDT

Bill Loveless, left, a delegate, his wife, Rhonda, and Jon VanderStek, a delegate, listen to Carl Wimmer, a candidate for the 4th Congressional District, at IHOP in West Jordan, Wednesday, April 4, 2012.

Ravell Call, Ravell Call, Deseret News

Early morning light streams through the windows at Einstein Bros Bagels where Jordan Fuller and two dozen other Republican delegates huddle around a table eating bagels smeared with cream cheese courtesy of congressional candidate Mia Love.

Love makes her pitch for the state's new 4th District seat and answers questions for more than an hour, and then sticks around for those who want to talk one-on-one. Fuller, a first-time state delegate, patiently waits his turn.

"I don't know you very well," the 35-year-old West Valley City man tells the candidate.

He then spent a long time talking with Love, the African-American mayor of Saratoga Springs, including sharing his concerns about a social worker wanting to place one of his four adopted black sons on government assistance as soon as the child was released from the hospital. Fuller's four young boys were born of a drug-addicted mother.

By the time the state party conventions roll around April 21, delegates like Fuller should know the candidates inside and out. In addition to the face time, incumbents and challengers slam them with phone calls, emails, Facebook requests, texts and tweets.

Many candidates, especially in the 4th District, have taken to courting delegates over breakfast, lunch or dinner — usually paid for by the candidates. IHOP one morning, Mimi's Cafe the next. Golden Corral one evening, Chili's the next. And there's also the popular "Dessert with (fill in the candidate)" at Marie Callender's.

Breakfast at Einstein Bros was Fuller's third eat-and-greet as he vets 4th District hopefuls. He ate with Carl Wimmer at Denny's (buy your own breakfast) and had an Olive Garden dinner on Stephen Sandstrom.

As state GOP delegate Zach Jacob tweeted:

"Dinner with @Sandstromutah last night, Breakfast with @danforutah tomorrow... Delegatehood has its privileges."

Only Republican and Democratic party delegates elected in last month's neighborhood caucuses have a say in who gets on the ballot in contested intraparty races. And though delegates might have backed particular candidates in those meetings, they're not bound to vote for them at the party conventions.

So the push is on to wine and dine the delegates, though always sans the wine. Without their support at convention, it's game over — no advancing to a primary or a general election.

Food doesn't impress everyone, though.

West Jordan real estate agent Kristen Price is serving as a state Republican delegate for the second time. Eight years ago, she kept to herself while "joyously" indulging in the spreads candidates laid out at various events. Now she does just the opposite on both accounts.

Carrying a yellow steno pad, the 63-year-old grandmother comes armed with thoughtful questions she doesn't hesitate to ask. She eschews the food because she doesn't want candidates to spend money on her nor does she want to be influenced.

Price's flexible work schedule allows her to spend hours a day delving into candidates' platforms and backgrounds.

"I want my grandchildren to grow up in the country I grew up in," she says, her lips quavering and her eyes welling with tears. "That's my motivation. I see that being taken away."

Some buy, some won't

Some candidates don't foot the bill for delegates, citing concerns it could appear they're trying to buy votes. Others avoid restaurants more as a cost-saving measure, preferring to meet in public places or private homes.

"It's just a perception thing for me," said Jay Seegmiller, one of three Democrats running for the 2nd District seat in Congress. "I just err on the side of not being perceived as trying to buy people. I think there's too much of that with lobbyists."

Cherilyn Eagar, one of 11 Republicans in the 2nd District race, said she's trying to make a statement by not paying for delegate meals in restaurants. Instead, her campaign invites delegates to "buy your own" meals in low-cost restaurants.

"Much of what's going wrong in Washington right now is the idea that people can get something for nothing," she said. "I like it when people know I'm not trying to buy their favor. It feels better to me."

Eagar said her decision also helps the campaign's bottom line. "It's been a tough fundraising year for everyone in Utah," she said. "It's been very important that we spend our money wisely."

Another GOP contender in the crowded 2nd District field, former Utah House Speaker Dave Clark, also avoids restaurants for meetings with delegates in a district that stretches from southern Utah to Davis County.

On a recent evening, some 20 delegates gathered to hear from Clark at the Fruit Heights home of Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, many sitting on folding chairs and nibbling on cold cuts and cookies set out by the campaign.

"I don't think it's a huge deal to have things in restaurants. But from a campaign standpoint, it's not worth the money," said Clark's campaign manager, Greg Hartley. "Our policy is homes first, public buildings second and restaurants as a last resort."

Hartley, who's managed GOP races since 2000, said other than the expense, there's nothing wrong with buying meals at restaurants, a practice that's gone on for years. "The name of the game is getting delegates to show up," he said. "I don't think it's trying to buy votes."

Candidate Chris Stewart, an author, tried a different approach to reach Republican delegates in the 2nd District. His campaign hand-delivered autographed copies of his book, "Seven Miracles That Saved America," to nearly 1,000 delegates within days of the GOP caucuses.

"It was quite an operation," said Stewart's campaign spokeswoman Nikki VanOverbeck. "A lot of people knew about the books and hadn't put together the same Chris Stewart that was the author was the Chris Stewart running for Congress."

VanOverbeck said the campaign also attempted to be creative about feeding delegates, hosting "Picnic and Politics" events at parks and other public places where hot dogs, apple pie and root beer were served.

"We went with an Americana theme," she said. "Nothing extraordinarily fancy."

Judy Moore, a first-time GOP delegate from Taylorsville, said she received a sports car poster and tickets to Miller Motorsports Park in the mail from David Kirkham, one of the candidates challenging Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.

"I was a little bewildered by it," Moore said of the gift from the custom-car manufacturer, "but I think it was his way of setting himself apart and showing who he is."

An invitation to join Kirkham for a "Day at the Track" offered delegates the opportunity to ride around the track with a certified race car driver in one of the Cobra replica's made by his Provo company.

Kirkham's campaign said the event not only showcased his "unique Utah-based international company" but also the "horsepower" he'd bring to running the state as governor.

Doing their homework

Wading through all the invitations, phone calls, emails, mailers and occasional gifts from candidates amounts to a part-time job for many delegates.

"What you don't want is the drive-by delegate," said Paul Baltes, a GOP precinct chairman in Springville. "You want someone involved."

Sen. Orrin Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, said the delegates deserve the attention from candidates because they work hard. "They treat it very seriously," he said. "We're going to provide as much information as they want."

Daryl Acumen, a Republican delegate from Cedar Hills, figures he will spend as much as 10 hours a week studying candidates. He posts his notes from meetings with candidates at gopcenter.com.

A 41-year-old Hewlett-Packard digital strategy manager, Acumen grew up in Maryland, attended the University of Southern California and settled in Utah about 10 years ago.

He's leaning toward Hatch in the Senate race, but said he really likes former GOP state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, too. What he doesn't like are outside groups — the anti-Hatch FreedomWorks and the anti-Liljenquist Freedom Path — working against the candidates. Most of their literature goes into his trash can.

"I despise FreedomWorks," he said. "I want them to get the hell out of the state."

Of Freedom Path, Acumen said, "I get a lot of crap from them, too. I don't like it."

Nor does he care for the "push poll" calls he gets from campaigns trying to discredit their opponents. Negative campaigning, he said, doesn't play well in Utah.

On a recent Wednesday, Quynn Udell had 35 voice mails on his cellphone — all from candidates. Most evenings his phone rings a dozen times. And he gets "robo calls" from one particular candidate at least three times a day.

"I get bombarded," he said.

But the first-time Republican delegate from Copperton knows it comes with the territory. On the flip side, he has cellphone numbers for candidates who don't mind direct calls or texts.

"I never fathomed being able to get to know the candidates as well as I have," said Udell, who changed his party affiliation from Libertarian to Republican before his neighborhood caucus meeting. "When you're a delegate, they're very willing to listen to you."

South Jordan resident Terrie Sherwood, 63, never fathomed she'd be a delegate. Though her husband was politically minded, she was not. But after he died, she thought she should take an interest in politics.

Sherwood attended a Democratic neighborhood caucus because that's what her husband did. And being among only three attendees, she was promptly elected a delegate.

So far, Sherwood has heard most from state Sens. Ross Romero and Ben McAdams, both D-Salt Lake, in the hotly contested race for the Democratic nomination for Salt Lake County mayor. Seeing them side by side at a candidates' meeting helped her decide whom to support, though she's not ready to reveal that publicly.

Democrats, who usually don't have many contested races, seem more geared toward winning over delegates at county and state conventions as opposed to restaurants and diners.

Before 7 a.m. on a recent Friday, about 10 GOP delegates stood outside Mimi's Cafe in Orem waiting for the doors to open. Talk outside the restaurant was confined mostly to greetings and introductions. But once the doors opened, another dozen delegates emerged from their cars and Liljenquist arrived, it was nothing but politics for the next 2½ hours.

Eventually, 28 delegates — all men but three — took seats at a long table or in the surrounding booths.

Servers distributed menus and set plates of fresh fruit and quartered muffins on the table as Liljenquist talked. Soon, delegates were cutting into French toast and quiche, munching bacon, stabbing at breakfast potatoes and sipping orange juice.

Liljenquist didn't intend to pick up the tab for all these people, but ultimately paid the $171 bill.

Email: romboy@desnews.com; lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy; dnewspolitics

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