In what has become a fall tradition, hundreds of Utah political donors and politicians will gather Saturday at The Grand America Hotel for Gov. Gary Herbert’s annual gala, which once again is expected to rake in $1 million.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, known for his plain-spoken nature and love of Bruce Springsteen, is headlining the Salt Lake City event as a personal favor to Herbert, according to the campaign.
Tickets start at $500 per person, but donors will pony up $25,000 or more to be listed as a host of the event that gets the sponsor and a handful of guests into a VIP reception with Herbert and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell before the dinner.
Herbert campaign spokesman Marty Carpenter said the money raised is important in helping the governor.
"We think Utah’s economy is headed in the right direction, and we’ve got our focus on the right areas," said Carpenter. "We want to keep Utah on that path."
But Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Cooke said Herbert "already has an obnoxious amount of money," and the lavish affair shows the governor is out of touch with working Utah families.
"What I’m sensing on the campaign trail is this important disconnect between what the average Utahn is going through, hanging on and working two jobs and worrying about their future," Cooke said. "I think it’s just the wrong message."
Cooke will have a fundraiser of his own — billed as an un-fundraiser — serving chili and scones for $15 a person ($10 for students, $40 for families) at his campaign headquarters, with half the money being donated to The Road Home homeless shelter.
Christie and Herbert have become close through their work on the Republican Governors Association, Carpenter said, and the New Jersey governor was eager to help with the fundraiser.
Christie, who was considered a presidential contender before opting against running, spoke to the Utah delegation at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., last month. His story about Mitt Romney visiting his home and playing with his children was a hit with the audience. He also called President Barack Obama "irrelevant" and said he had abdicated his leadership duty.
Herbert has raised about $1 million in each of the galas he has held since he became governor in 2009, when Gov. Jon Huntsman left the office to become the U.S. ambassador to China.
Typically Herbert’s most generous supporters have been from the oil and gas industry, Realtors and developers, and contractors.
Donations from one group of contractors became a central issue in the 2010 election after Provo River Constructors, a group bidding to rebuild Interstate 15 through Utah County, won the $1.1 billion contract, the largest in state history. Members had contributed $87,500 to Herbert’s campaign.
Managers at the Utah Department of Transportation had overruled the technical evaluation team and awarded the contract to Provo River, then paid the losing bidder $13 million to avoid litigation.
Herbert’s 2010 Democratic opponent, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, hammered Herbert over the deal. Cooke has not pressed the issue aggressively, but said that Utah needs ethics reform and, since his support comes from small donors, "I’m not bought and I never will be. I’m not saying anyone else is, but I never will be."
Herbert has already raised more than $1 million for his campaign and had $740,000 in the bank to start the race, compared with $266,000 raised by Cooke.
Herbert has received $65,000 from developer Dell Loy Hansen; $50,000 from investment manager Alan Hall; $28,500 from the Utah Association of Realtors; and $25,000 each from Anadarko Petroleum, investor Foster Friess, the Larry H. Miller company, Reagan Outdoor Advertising and Merit Medical.
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