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."
Herbert's campaign manager, Scott Ericson, said voters should see "there is some lazy campaigning going on, some desperate campaigning" that amounts to exploiting a personnel issue.
"It's coincidental that it's UDOT again that's come up," Ericson said, calling the Graham case "a personnel issue that the campaign has no control over. It's something Jim Dabakis and the Democrats are trying to politicize and it's unfair to do. It's a legal issue."
Graham's attorney, Brad Bearnson, said neither she nor her legal counsel sought the support of the Democrats, but it made all the difference.
"It certainly greased the wheels to force UDOT's hands to do what they should have done in the first place," Bearnson said.
On Friday, Graham said she had resolved the final issues surrounding her return to state employment.
Ericson, Herbert's campaign manager, said the issue won't sway voters who "will see that this woman has been off for a year. If she really wanted her job back, she'd be back at work" instead of having negotiated over pay and other details.
Instead, both Wright and Ericson said the governor's actions in the case will be seen as an example of his deliberative leadership.
"Leadership isn't standing up and being loud and firing people left and right when a mistake is made," Ericson said. "The real question is what you do to rectify the situation going forward."
Wright said voters "will see what they saw in 2010, and that's a governor who's very thoughtful and careful and not quick to judgment. … Nobody likes somebody who blames another person, especially when it's not true."
University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless said Herbert's handling of UDOT and other issues is fair game because the governor is campaigning on the state's status as the best-managed in the country.
"The vulnerability at this stage is there are still charges that are still lingering, still smoldering, from two years ago," Chambless said. "When we see problems of mismanagement, a number of them, then it starts to create what the lawyers call a preponderance of evidence."
Even before Cooke entered the race, Dabakis was slamming Herbert for mismanagement at the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Several top DABC officials have left or been let go following probes into how tax dollars were spent.
Still, the Democrats say they recognize they can push the issue too far.
"We have to get our message out there that this isn't personal," Dabakis said. Whatver the party says about Herbert, he said, should be about "just pointing out the facts."
Besides, the Democratic Party can't afford to launch a negative advertising campaign, Dabakis said, describing the party as having to find other ways of getting out its message.
"We're in a kind of guerilla warfare," he said. "We have to scrounge, we have to hunt around."
Cooke stressed he's not coordinating his campaign with the Democratic Party.
"They have their own separate way of making the message. I can't control the Democratic Party. I'm an independent candidate," Cooke said, pledging not to engage in negative campaigning.
"The positive thing you'll see from my campaign is why I feel I am the better leader," he said. "I am not going to run negative campaign ads. I don’t' think the people of Utah want to see that. They want to see a strong leader."
Wright said trying to separate any negative message from the candidate is a bad strategy for the Democrats.
"Because at some point, Peter Cooke may want to have a constructive dialog," the GOP chairman said. "How is he going to do that with Dabakis bomb-throwing in the background?"
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