Democrats return to UDOT issue in guv race; GOP says it's a losing strategy

Published: Saturday, May 12 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon listens while Governor Gary R. Herbert talks at a public debate outside of the Channel 2 News Studios in Salt Lake City, Utah on Thursday, Sept., 30, 2010.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

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Related: Wrongfully fired worker reaches settlement with UDOT

SALT LAKE CITY — Democrats are trying again to defeat GOP Gov. Gary Herbert by targeting his handling of the Utah Department of Transportation, a campaign strategy Republicans say will fail just as it did in 2010.

Two years ago, the Democratic candidate for governor, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, lost decisively to Herbert after hammering the governor about the connection between his campaign contributions and the awarding of $1 billion-plus UDOT contract.

This time, the issue is UDOT's wrongful firing of an employee, Denise Graham, who was linked her to information leaked about the contract in an audit ordered by the governor after it was revealed the agency had quietly paid out a $13 million settlement to a losing bidder. 

"It's certainly the party's job to point out the flaws in the leadership ability of this governor," said state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, who helped push the Graham case into the spotlight.

Dabakis said Democrats are trying to avoid repeating the campaign mistakes that may have cost them the race in 2010.

"Last time, it was the Corroon campaign that pointed out all the negativity and all the scandal, and they repeatedly went to the well with that message. People found that too negative," he said. "Our gubernatorial candidate ought not to be the one delivering that message."

But the Democratic candidate, retired Army Gen. Peter Cooke, has jumped into the fray, calling for Herbert to fire UDOT boss John Njord over his handling of the Graham situation and to order a new investigation into how the I-15 contract was awarded.

"Make it right," Cooke demanded of the governor in a press release issued while negotiations between UDOT and Graham were still dragging on following an administrative law judge's ruling that she should not have been fired.

At one point, Njord told Graham she had to sign a letter urging Democrats to stop using her case for political gains. The governor's office stepped in and put a stop to that maneuver and Herbert himself said Njord "made a mistake" politicizing the negotiations.

Cooke insists he's running a different race than Corroon.

"I'm not harping," Cooke said, promising his campaign is not based "on a strategy that is going over the same stuff over and over again."

He said he just wants to see the UDOT issue resolved. "I don't want it to linger," Cooke said. "I want this issue to go away."

Both Dabakis and Cooke are also emphasizing they see UDOT this time as only one example of what they are attempting to portray as Herbert's difficulties in leading the state since assuming office in 2009.

"The evidence is coming back that he's just way over his head," Dabakis said, particularly alongside the recent data breech at the Utah Department of Health that jeopardized the personal information of some 800,000 Utahns.

GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said he's not surprised the Democrats are bringing back "the old broken playbook from 2010," but warned if they stick with it they can expect the same dismal results.

"It's just an attempt to have an opportunity to beat up the governor for political gain. This isn't about UDOT or the management of the state," Wright said. "This is about a political opportunity for a governor candidate and his party chairman."

Utah voters, he said, rejected that approach two years ago and will again. "The voters in Utah are very educated and sophisticated. They'll see right through this and see it for what it is, a political attack."

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