Salt Lake City Council challengers criticize what they say are special interest donations to incumbents

Ahead of an election next week for three open Salt Lake City Council seats, two political newcomers are criticizing their incumbent opponents’ campaign contributions and raising concerns about the potential influence of special interests in the race.

Dan Dugan, a former Navy pilot who currently works in the manufacturing industry and is running to represent the city’s District 6, has hinged his campaign on a promise that he will fight the inland port, a massive development project planned for the city’s northwest side that he argues will cost the city tax dollars and that he believes will contribute to poor air quality.

He’s now making an issue of $4,560 in donations his opponent, Council Chairman Charlie Luke, received from Steve Price, a developer who was one of the original proponents of the inland port project, and from companies associated with Price’s family.

“There’s a lot of influence there,” Dugan said of those contributions in an interview Wednesday. “If you’re going to develop that area, you’re going to donate to candidates who might support your development.”

Dugan sees his hands as relatively cleaner as he seeks to oppose the project, noting that his donations have come mostly from friends, family and community members and not from political power brokers who want to “sway things their way.”

Luke countered that he’s received contributions from Price, “a longtime friend,” in the past, and that they haven’t affected the few votes the council has made related to the port — which was created by the state during the 2018 legislative session — and wouldn’t influence any future decisions.

“He’s been a longtime supporter and a friend and I think any sort of implication [of influence] is just an effort to try to create a dot to dot that doesn’t exist,” Luke said.

The six candidates running for three open Salt Lake City Council seats have raised a combined $101,743 as of the latest campaign finance deadline Tuesday — a small fraction of the total raised in the city’s high-profile mayoral race.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

With just under $45,000 raised, Luke is the highest earner among the candidates running in Salt Lake City this year. The donations in question represent about 10% of his overall contributions.

Dugan raised $21,105 from 94 contributions, one of which came from Betty Iverson, who is married to Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

Luke, who works as a lobbyist for the Utah Association of Community Services, also received donations from Reagan Outdoor Advertising — as billboards have become a major issue in the mayoral race — and several unions, including the Local 81 Salt Lake City Firefighters and the Operating Engineers Local 3, District 12 political action committee.

The two-term councilman called fundraising an “unfortunate” reality of campaigning.

“You have to do it in order to run a good and a robust campaign and so I put some effort into making phone calls and doing the traditional fundraising,” he said. “I’m grateful for the support I’ve received and that I’ve had the resources to run the kind of campaign I want to run.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In this Jan. 22, 2019, file photo, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Analia Valdemoros was being interviewed to fill a vacant District 4 seat left by former Councilman Derek Kitchen, who is now serving as a state senator. She is now seeking her first election by voters.

District 4

In the city’s District 4 race, newly-appointed Salt Lake City Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros has outraised opponent Leo Rodgers by a factor of nearly 100 times, bringing in $25,008 compared to his $273.

“We exceeded our own expectations on the amount of support I was going to have,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday. “Fortunately I’ve been able to create relationships and have relationships with fellow business owners that have supported me, friends and family and new people I’ve met on the way that believe in me and want to see me [in the seat] for four more years. I think that reflects on the amount I have raised.”

Rodgers, a grocery clerk, earned his money entirely from small donors, with no individual contribution of more than $50 and two of his eight contributions coming from District 2 council candidate Moroni Benally.

The candidate said he’s struggled to fundraise, in part because he’s a “fresh face that a lot of people haven’t necessarily heard of yet” and also since, at 22, he’s the youngest candidate in the race. “That’s been a little bit of a challenge as well,” he acknowledged.

But he noted that he’s also made it a point not to seek out donations from businesses or political action committees — something he said Valdemoros “can’t say.”

“A couple of developers even maxed out to her campaign,” he said. “I’m not going to say Ana’s taking it because she’s at the feet of developers and real estate, but for somebody like me, I won’t take that kind of money because I don’t want the possibility to have that thought. I want to make it blatantly clear that I’m running for people.”

(Courtesy photo) Leo Rodgers

Valdemoros, a small business owner who was appointed to the council in January, has received support from several local restaurants and labor organizations, like the United Transportation Union PAC, the Central Utah Federation of Labor and the Laborers Political League.

She’s also received a $760 donation from the Salt Lake Board of Realtors, $250 from Union Pacific Railroad and contributions from her predecessor, now-state Sen. Derek Kitchen, and from two mayoral candidates who were eliminated in the primary: former state Sen. Jim Dabakis and former City Councilman Stan Penfold.

She dismissed the idea Wednesday that her contributions from companies in the development and real estate world would have any impact on her decisions as a council member.

“I’m going to talk to everybody and a donation does not mean favors,” she said. "A contribution to a campaign to me means a strong campaign and successful campaign.”

Andrew Johnston and Moroni Benally

District 2

In Salt Lake City’s District 2 race, Benally, an activist and member of the Navajo Nation, has both outraised and outspent Councilman Andrew Johnston by a factor of more than six to one — the only one of the three races in which a challenger has brought in more dollars.

“That’s news to me,” Benally said when reached Wednesday about his campaign donations. “We hope that it translates into something that’s good for us,” he added, noting that the majority had come from friends, family and others in the community he’s worked with over the years.

Of Benally’s $9,199 in contributions, several come from across the Western United States, including California, Colorado, Texas and Washington. Benally is the co-director of the Utah League of Native American Voters and works as the coordinator for public policy and advocacy at Restoring Ancestral Winds, a nonprofit tribal coalition that addresses domestic violence and sexual assault.

Johnston, a social worker with Volunteers for America, has raised just $1,424 and spent $1,197 over the course of his run.

“Part of it was just not needing it in my view as far as my strategy and part of it was just from a personal level it causes a lot of problems in campaigns,” he said, noting that he had voluntarily limited his total donations to $15,000 and has made use of materials and funds left over from his last race.

Among the candidate’s interesting contributions was an in-kind donation of a scooter from the company Razor USA, which launched its products recently in Salt Lake City. Johnston told The Salt Lake Tribune that he “doesn’t drive much” and is using it for campaign purposes, with a plan to donate it once the campaign is over.