Keith Johnson, Deseret News
Merrill Cook responds to a question during a debate between candidates for U.S. Senate at the Provo Library at Academy Square in Provo, March 1, 2010.

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Republican Utah congressman and seasoned campaigner Merrill Cook is making his second run at the Salt Lake County mayor's office.

Cook last sought the post in 2004, losing to incumbent Mayor Peter Corroon, who has announced he will not seek re-election.

Cook said dealing locally with the effects of shrinking federal budgets will create the biggest challenge for the incoming county mayor.

"The federal government is going to be cutting back like crazy," which he believes will put more pressure on local governments to raise taxes to maintain service levels for government activities fed by federal funds.

But shifting that burden locally, particularly to property taxes, will not work, Cook said. "People are not going to accept property tax increases when their property is still worth less."

Cook, a businessman and Harvard MBA, believes his experience in Congress as Utah's 2nd District representative from 1996 to 2000 gives him the insights needed to find "innovative" ways to deal with federal budget cuts without raising taxes locally.

He sees other interactions between federal and local governments as top issues in the county mayor's office.

All levels of government must be involved in regulatory work to improve air quality, he said, but more separation is needed between federal and state government in land and water quality issues.

The latter is why Cook said he is opposing the proposed Canyons-Solitude SkiLink gondola, which is being promoted by Canada-based Talisker Corp. and would require federal legislation to gain control of a 30-acre patch of Forest Service land in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

"What that would end up doing is putting the federal government in charge," Cook believes. "How do we keep the federal government out of local land and watershed issues when we would be bringing them in on this?"

Cook most recently has had a high profile in the county for his lobbying efforts with Citizens Aligned to Secure Utah's Prosperity, or CATSUP. The group successfully persuaded the county to require business license applicants in unincorporated Salt Lake County to indicate they have used E-Verify to assure the legal working status of their employees.

Cook said CATSUP participants have talked to him for some time about running for mayor, but that he made the decision to run about a week ago.

This will be Cook's 14th political campaign either as a Republican or an independent. His first campaign was an unsuccessful run for the state school board in 1984 and have also included a run for Salt Lake City mayor, two gubernatorial campaigns, the previous county mayoral race, a try at the senate and three congressional attempts on either side of his successful race for Utah's 2nd Congressional District.

"I may have lost more times than I have won, but how many people have ended up with an opportunity to serve in the Congress?" Cook said he enjoys being a businessman but has a sustained appetite for public office. "I don't think there is a thing wrong with persistence," he said.

Running for county mayor is not a step down, politically, because local government has the most direct impact on people's day-to-day lives, Cook said. "I love the debate in Congress, but that's what it is — a debate and a vote. The mayor deals with local people and local problems."

Cook enters a contest already teeming with candidates from both parties, all of whom hold or have previously held public office. In addition to Cook, the Republican lineup includes Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott and former County Councilman Mark Crockett, County Councilman Richard Snelgrove and West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder. The two Democrats in the race are state senators Ross Romero and Ben McAdams.

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