SALT LAKE CITY — When Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon drives home at night, he motors past the governor's mansion.
It's a destination that eluded him when he ran for governor in 2010, losing 64 percent to 32 percent to Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.
It was also the venue for one of the more illuminating moments in Corroon's tenure as county mayor — the political equivalent of being taken to the woodshed by state Republican leaders for his strong stance against using public funds for a professional soccer stadium.
"The state is run by a few power brokers. If you get on their bad side, things can be made difficult for you," he said of the experience.
Corroon dug in his heels at the Capitol because he believed using taxpayer money to finance the stadium for Real Salt Lake was an "unsafe investment."
Ultimately, the Utah Legislature passed a bill to divert a portion of the county's hotel tax dollars — a total of $35 million — to pay for the suburban stadium.
But Corroon's unwavering opposition lifted the political unknown onto the state stage. While some political observers describe the ordeal as the defining moment of his political career, Corroon takes a different view.
He says he believes the hallmark of his two terms as Salt Lake County mayor is leaving the county in better stead than when he started, restoring confidence in county government and improving employee morale. But he also leaves on the heels of a 16.2 percent tax increase, drawing the ire of critics.
Corroon recounted one of his first meetings with county division directors after he was sworn into office.
"I asked them 'What should we be doing differently?' I pretty much got blank stares and no response. I don’t think they were used to having the ability to make decisions for themselves," he said.
Corroon said he has insisted on accountability and strong fiscal management but he's tried to give department heads and other administrators latitude to manage their areas of responsibility.
Deputy Mayor Nichole Dunn said the county was "a mess" at the start of Corroon's first term as mayor. The former mayor, Republican Nancy Workman, was charged in 2004 with misusing county monies, although a jury found her not guilty the following year.
But the trial revealed that she allowed the use of public funds for the Boys and Girls Clubs. The trial, the Deseret News opined at the time, "came down to a question of intent, and of whether Workman was a mayor more concerned with the big picture than the details of running a large government."
Even though Workman had been acquitted, the GOP chose to back write-in candidate Ellis Ivory. Corroon won election by 8,300 votes.
Corroon, who was a relative unknown in Utah politics, promised to use his background in business to operate open, honest, ethical and efficient government and to restore confidence in the office and Salt Lake County government.
"I think we have done both, but it's up to citizens to decide," Corroon said at a recent press briefing. Corroon did not seek a third term in office, fulfilling an earlier promise to serve only two terms in position.
Corroon says some of his administration's most significant accomplishments include Salt Lake County maintaining its AAA bond rating during the economic downturn; keeping Salt Lake County one of the safest communities in the nation; providing alternatives to incarceration; setting aside more open space and developing parks; and enhancing humane treatment for abandoned pets or unwanted pets.
Corroon took the latter so seriously that his family recently adopted a Yorkshire terrier puppy from Salt Lake County Animal Services.
Corroon's family had wanted a different dog they saw at an adoption event but another family beat them to it.
A couple of weeks later, animal services employees dropped by Corroon's office with "Biscuit," placing the 6-month-old puppy on his lap. The pup hopped down and relieved himself on the carpet. "I said, 'He'll fit in well in our family.'"
Corroon proudly describes the dog as the family's "pound puppy." No toney designer dog for Corroon, the model of fiscal conservatism, Dunn said.
For example, Dunn revealed, Corroon buys his dress shoes at Savers thrift store.
Recently, while wrestling on the couch with his sons, Corroon told them not to muss his sportcoat, lest he have to pay $7 to have it dry cleaned.
His thrifty nature has apparently rubbed off on his wife, Amy, who insisted that Corroon visit their family doctor after falling and injuring his hip while playing a pick-up game of hockey instead of traveling to the emergency room by ambulance.
By the time Amy Corroon received the call, however, the mayor was en route to the hospital, where he underwent surgery to repair a broken hip.
That was a Friday. Corroon returned the office on the following Tuesday.
Corroon has maintained a grueling schedule throughout the past eight years. He's up at 5 a.m. every day but Sunday. He gets up early to exercise, shower, eat breakfast and arrives at the office about 7 a.m. He uses the early hours of his work days to return telephone calls and e-mails. His responsibilities often last until the evening if he's attending a function.
"When he started, he would say, 'Nobody knows who I am. I really have to prove I can do this job,' " Amy Corroon said.
More family time
While the family has enjoyed many of the opportunities the job has brought their way, Amy Corroon said she looks forward to having more family time once her husband leaves elected office.
The Corroon children, Sophie, 11, Peter Jr. ,10, and James, 9, are at ages that they need their father's influence even more, she said. They notice when he's unable to attend a sport practice, game or musical performance, she said. The children have literally spent their childhoods with their father in the public eye.
Corroon said he, too, looks forward to a return to private life but does not exclude the possibility of another run for office.
He's mulling job offers in the private sector but won't say what they are. He has a dozen offers to serve on the boards of nonprofit organizations. Corroon came from the private sector and has a bachelor degree in engineering and graduate degrees in law and business.
He had hoped to fill his successor Ben McAdams' unexpired term in the Utah Senate but Utah Democratic Party delegates picked state party chairman Jim Debakis over Corroon by six votes.
Amy Corroon said her husband didn't dwell on the loss. "He would have been the best person for the seat but it was almost a relief. It means we will have him at home more."
Perhaps his greatest disappointment in eight years as mayor of Salt Lake County was his finish in a weight-loss contest among local mayors. Corroon finished second.
"He was probably more upset about that than the Senate seat," Amy Corroon said.
Corroon said he has struggled with his weight throughout his life. His weight peaked at 287 pounds during his term as mayor. It's now down to about 205 pounds.
As mayor, Corroon enjoyed a lengthy period when Democrats held the majority on the County Council. Republicans have held the majority in recent years, during which they refused to place on the ballot a $110 million bond for parks and open space in 2011.
In 2012, Corroon presented the council a pared down $47 million proposal, which the council voted unanimously to place on the November ballot. It passed handily.
County Councilman Steve DeBry, a Republican, said Corroon is "a consummate professional" who brought intellect and integrity to the office.
But he is also politically shrewd, DeBry said. For example, Corroon did not present his proposed budget — which required a 16.2 percent property tax increase — to the council until after the November election.
"I think in his heart of hearts, he knew the park bond probably wouldn't pass with the fallout of a tax increase so he chose to fall back. He didn't do it out of malice," he said.
The decision to raise taxes, the first property tax increase by Salt Lake County in 11 years, was "gut wrenching" for Corroon, Dunn said.
"He does think about families that are struggling. He's very fiscally prudent in his own life," she said.
Republican County Councilman Richard Snelgrove said the county could have continued to rein in its spending even more. "I've felt this is not the right time given the current economic climate," said Snelgrove, a frequent critic of Corroon.12 comments on this story
The alternatives, Corroon said, were closing libraries, recreational centers, not having enough prosecutors and eliminating jail beds.
"I don't like a tax increase any more than anyone else. I wasn't going to leave our government in a mess," he said.
In the end, Corroon said he applied the same decision-making process over the budget that he has used throughout his eight years in elected office.
He asks simply, "What's the right thing to do?
"When I've had difficult decisions to make, it's been pretty illuminating how easy it is to ask yourself that question."