GOP Utah Senate president says out-of-state money for Prop 4 shows it seeks only ‘better boundaries for Democrats’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Wayne Niederhauser talks about school safety, at the Senate leaders press briefing, Thursday, March 1, 2018.

Left-leaning and out-of-state groups are pouring in big money to push Proposition 4 to create an independent commission to draw Utah’s political boundaries — including nearly $1 million from a group founded by two Democratic Texas billionaires.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, says that’s a sign that Prop 4 isn’t really about creating better boundaries, “just better boundaries for Democrats.”

He adds, “Why are we getting all that national money coming in here? Democrats felt they lost control of Congress because of redistricting. And they want to create a safe Democratic seat in Utah. That’s what Prop 4 really is about.”

Jeff Wright disagrees. He is a former GOP congressional candidate who is co-chairman of Better Boundaries, the group pushing Prop 4.

He says its financial support is widely bipartisan and that no group has formed to fight the referendum “because supporting gerrymandering is a failed idea, and no one will give time or money to that.”

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Former SLC Mayor Ralph Becker, right, and Jeff Wright talk about the formal launch of the Better Boundaries initiative, which will ask voters to create an independent commission to redraw political districts. The pair spoke from the Cicero Group offices in Salt Lake City Thursday, July 20, 2017.

New campaign disclosure forms filed Tuesday show that the fundraising arm of Better Boundaries — a political issues committee called Utahns for a Responsive Government — spent nearly $700,000 in the past two months.

That included buying a barrage of TV ads. One featured the late Republican President Ronald Reagan pushing for independent, bipartisan redistricting commissions to combat “un-American” gerrymandering. Another featured how children left to cut their own cake came up with unfair slices that served themselves.

Analysis of disclosure forms shows that 69 percent of the $1.9 million that the pro-Prop 4 group raised this election cycle came from out of state. But Wright said more than 7,000 individual Utahns donated to the campaign, showing strong local support.

More than half of the overall total raised by the group — $995,100 — came from one donor: the Action Now Initiative, which also gave $385,847 in the past two months just before next Tuesday’s general election.

The Action Now Initiative is an advocacy group founded by billionaires John and Laura Arnold of Texas. John Arnold became a billionaire as a hedge fund manager.

Bloomberg described Arnold as “a moderate Democrat who believes a rich country like the United States should provide a high safety net for its citizens.” The Houston Chronicle reported the Arnolds hosted a $10,000-per-guest fundraiser for President Barack Obama.

Wright said it is incorrect to describe the group as left-leaning or Democratic. “It is nonpartisan,” he said. “It is more like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” seeking to help worthwhile causes.

Wright adds that Better Boundaries did not solicit donations from Action Now Initiative or most of the other big donors. “We put our idea out to the marketplace,” he said. “We didn’t necessarily solicit the donations. They came to us.”

Some other left-leaning groups have also donated big amounts to the Prop 4 campaign.

The American Civil Liberties Union donated $100,650; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) gave $100,000; Campaign for Democracy, which has the same California address as the SEIU, also gave $100,000; the National Education Association teachers union gave $60,000; and local Democratic philanthropist Bruce Bastian also gave $60,000.

No organized groups have formed to campaign against Prop 4 — although many GOP state legislators have attacked it.

“I think it will probably pass” because of that, Niederhauser said. A recent Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics survey showed it leading by a 2-to-1 margin.

He said legislators could not organize against the proposition without looking self-serving. But he added that the big out-of-state and left-leaning donations are evidence that Prop 4 is designed to help Democrats nationally by creating a safe U.S. House seat for them here.

“They want to have a safe Democratic district,” he said, maybe by creating one district in Salt Lake County — which now has no U.S. House member from that largest-in-the-state and Democratic-leaning county. “I also say to them, isn’t that gerrymandering?”

Prop 4 would create a commission appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, and at least two of its members must be politically unaffiliated. The Legislature could reject any plan proposed by the commission and adopt its own, but would need to outline why — and that could be problematic in the eyes of voters.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chad Smith, of West Valley City, looks at redistricting maps on Sept. 27, 2011.

“It’s designed to allow more lawsuits,” Niederhauser complained. “I also think it’s unconstitutional,” because the Utah Constitution gives the Legislature sole responsibility for redrawing boundaries after the once-a-decade census. He adds he feels GOP groups may challenge Prop 4 in court if it passes.

Wright said both Republicans and Democrats have gerrymandered districts in different states, and Prop 4 is an honest effort to stop it here. He adds that it has received money from people in both parties.

Also, he said the reason no formal opposition organized against it is “because it is really hard to support gerrymandering.”

Prop 4 arose amid persistent allegations of gerrymandering.

For example, after the last redrawing in 2011, then-Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson accused GOP legislators of splitting up his old district three ways to make re-election impossible in the district where he lives, so he chose to run in an adjacent one that included more of his former constituents.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.

With the unusual move, Matheson barely won re-election — by 768 votes — over challenger Mia Love in 2012. Two years, later, he chose not to seek re-election, and Love won the seat.