The focus of the Utah attorney general race has momentarily shifted from law enforcement issues to public employees, some of whom want to take the incumbent "to the proverbial woodshed" over his membership in a Virginia-based group.
And Republican incumbent David Wilkinson - trying to fend off a barage of last-minute television ads that threaten to evaporate his lead - says Democratic challenger Paul Van Dam is too closely tied to public employees that serve the interests of Utah citizens.Rhett Potter, executive director of the Utah Public Employee Association, fired the campaign's latest round of salvos Wednesday when he questioned Wilkinson's affiliation with a Virginia-based organization that is concerned solely with fighting abuses by public employee unions.
The group, known as the Public Service Research Council, listed Wilkinson as a member of its advisory council earlier this year.
"Wilkinson's leadership role in the PSRC is concrete evidence that he has little regard for Utah's public sector workers and the extraordinary efforts they have made during the state's recent lean years," Potter said in a statement issued Wednesday.
The UPEA has endorsed Van Dam.
Wilkinson, however, said he knows little about the council, has never attended a meeting, and has recently had his name removed from the list of advisory council members.
He did, however, accept campaign donations from the PSRC this year and in 1984.
"I hardly knew these people," Wilkinson said. "I've had one or two conversations with them."
Wilkinson said he respects and supports public employees. "I think the Utah public employee is a dedicated person," he said.
However, Wilkinson said, the UPEA dislikes him because he is trying to win a case that would bar two employees of the state's executive branch from serving as elected state legislators and because his office defends state agencies against the allegations of disgruntled employees.
Wilkinson notes the UPEA donated $37,000 to Van Dam's campaign.
"This office has to remain independent," Wilkinson said. "Whoever holds the office of attorney general should not be indebted to people he may be litigating in high-profile cases."
Van Dam discounted the significance of the donation during a recent debate, saying Wilkinson sought endorsements from the UPEA in previous races and would have accepted the donation if it was offered to him.
Potter acknowledged the UPEA dislikes Wilkinson's efforts to bar two public employees from serving in the Legislature. But he cited other reasons for the group's decision to endorse Van Dam, such as Wilkinson's claim he has recovered $40 million for the state in delinquent child support payments.
"Sources within the Division of Recovery Services, however, report that 311 full-time employees can rightfully claim credit for that accomplishment, not a single individual," Potter's statement said.
Until now, much of the attention in the race has focused on law enforcement, with both candidates claiming support from various police organizations. The focus may reshift quickly, however. Van Dam officials are planning a news conference Thursday morning with Salt Lake County Sheriff Pete Hayward and other law enforcement officials.
Wilkinson announced Wednesday he is supported by 16 county attorneys statewide, including at least one Democrat, Robert Adkins of Summit County.
"I have tried very hard not to politicize my office, particularly in the area of criminal prosecution," he said.
Meanwhile, Van Dam is hoping a barage of television ads will further boost his campaign in the final days before Tuesday's election.
Wilkinson will not use television to advertise.
"No money," he said. "Van Dam has raised three or four times more than we have."