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(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Mike Leavitt, former governor of Utah and former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
‘Count My Vote’ drive raises $810,000
Disclosures » Push to scrap caucuses rakes in more than any other political cause, candidate.
First Published Jan 10 2014 05:51 pm • Last Updated Jan 14 2014 07:17 am

The Count My Vote initiative drive, which seeks to replace party caucuses and conventions with direct primaries, raised more money last year than any other political cause, candidate, political action committee or even party in the state.

Year-end disclosure forms filed Friday show the group — led by such luminaries as former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt and former Democratic first lady Norma Matheson —  raised $810,902 last year through its fund-raising arm, the Alliance for Good Government.

At a glance

Other political financial activity

Politicians » The campaigns of state officeholders and candidates raised a total of $1.3 million in donations in the non-election year. Among legislators, leaders attracted the most. House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, raised $69,890; Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, $53,396; Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, $41,142; House Speaker Becky Lockhart, $39,870; and Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, $35,401.

PACs » Utah political action committees reported raising $5.2 million in donations, and funneling $3 million of that to political campaigns and causes. PACs that spent the most in donations to others or campaigning included the Utah Association of Realtors, $396,023; the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, $381,903; Operating Engineers Local 3, $220,421; Education First, $148,866; and the Salt Lake Board of Realtors, $145,866.

Corporations » They can legally donate to campaigns in Utah, and contributed $1.73 million to political candidates and causes during the year. The biggest donors among them included the National Association of Realtors, $201,903; Utah Credit Union Association, $115,000; Reagan Outdoor Advertising, $95,937; EnergySolutions, $93,130; SelectHealth, $62,400; and Merit Medical Systems, $49,300.

Parties » Political party arms raised $1.1 million last year. The Utah Democratic Party raised the most, $555,572, followed by the Utah Republican Party $355,132; the Salt Lake County Democratic Party, $37,279; and the Davis County Republican Party, $30,158.

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That is 88 times as much as the paltry $9,224 raised by the group opposing the initiative, called Protect Our Neighborhood Elections and its fund-raising arm, the Utah First Political Issues Committee.

The second-highest amount raised by any political group in the state was $693,057 by Gov. Gary Herbert’s leadership PAC. Herbert also raised another $103,023 directly to his campaign in the non-election year.

In further comparison, the Utah Democratic Party raised the most among political parties at $555,572. The corporation that spent the most on political races and candidates in Utah was the National Association of Realtors at $201,903.

Count My Vote raised its big money with the help of numerous large donations by big-name business people. Its co-chairwoman, Gail Miller, owner of the Larry Miller Group, donated $100,000 in cash — plus another $18,000 in-kind services by allowing use of her Megaplex theaters to gather signatures.

Another 19 people gave $25,000 each including Leavitt; Dell Loy Hansen, owner of the Real Salt Lake soccer team; John Price, developer and former U.S. ambassador; and wealthy businessmen Ian Cumming and Roger Boyer.

Another dozen donors gave $10,000 or more, including Bruce Bastian, co-founder of WordPerfect and a big donor to gay-rights issues and candidates; the Sandy Chamber of Commerce; and Koshrow Semnani, founder of Utah’s low-level radioactive waste landfill.

High hurdles » Taylor Morgan, executive director of Count My Vote, says the campaign is focusing on efforts to overcome high hurdles to gain access to the ballot. It must collect nearly 102,000 signatures in the state — including 10 percent of voters in 26 of the 29 state Senate districts.

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"No initiative in Utah has succeeded under these requirements," which the Legislature toughened recently, he said. "We’re doing well. We don’t have an exact number right now, but it’s in the tens of thousands of signatures. We’re pushing hard." The group has already spent $309,000 on campaign management, polling, ads and signature gathering.

He said donors are both Republicans and Democrats who feel the caucus system can allow small groups — such as tea partyers — to pack neighborhood caucuses and move politics to more extreme positions and candidates than the general public wants. His groups says a direct primary would ensure people supported by true majorities are elected.

"Folks recognize that the current system disenfranchises too many voters. Right now we have 0.3 percent of Utah’s voting population choosing candidates. People are excited about voting for themselves and not having someone else choose the candidates for them," Morgan said.

Robert Cox, treasurer for the opposing Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, complains that Count My Vote’s donors "are the elite of Utah" and "they can’t claim to represent the grassroots" and everyday Utahns.

Competition » "It is very hard to compete against that kind of money," Cox said. His group is trying to wage a cheaper effort using social media — and asking city councils and other local governments to pass resolutions in support.

Caucuses allow candidates without much money to compete by focusing on a relatively small number of delegates to conventions. Cox said doing away with that "would be like doing away with the Electoral College on a microlevel. That would allow five or six cities to decide who wins nationally." Caucuses and conventions, on the other hand, "force candidates to get to know people in every part of the state," he said.

Another cause raising big money through a political issues committee — $175,586 — was The 2014 Zoo Arts and Parks Renewal Committee. It hopes to place on Salt Lake County’s ballot this year an initiative to extend the ZAP tax — one-tenth of 1 cent per $1 purchase — for another 10 years. The tax is due to expire in 2016.

Major donors are all groups that receive money from that tax. For example, the Utah Symphony/Utah Opera gave $38,431; Hogle Zoo kicked in $37,586; and Ballet West donated $17,560.

"We want to get prepared to tell a really good story about how the ZAP tax has affected lives in the county," said Carter Livingtson, a consultant to the group.

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