Until Enid Greene Waldholtz's nationally televised five-hour cry-a-thon about her no-good husband Joe, Utah's 2nd Congressional District race didn't look to be the battleground it's become.
But when Republican Waldholtz dropped out
of her re-election race because of the soap opera-like
disintegration of her marriage, it opened the door for one of
Utah's most colorful never-elected
Republican Merrill Cook is a
millionaire whose family fortune derives from the manufacture of
explosives for the mining industry. In the past dozen years he's
run for office six times.
He began by running for
the Salt Lake City school board and worked his way up to governor.
He has run as a tax-fighting Republican, and when that party
rejected him, he ran as an independent against Republicans. Through
it all his record is unblemished: He has never won a general
election despite spending enough of his fortune to buy himself
nearly 100 percent name recognition in the
Salt Lake City's 2nd Congressional
District is far more diverse than Utah's other two. Ethnic
restaurants and farmer's markets have sprung up among the Mormon
temples here and less than half of the population belongs to the
church. The district swings wildly, choosing moderate Democrats
such as Wayne Owens and Karen Shepard, and conservative Republicans
like Waldholtz and former Lt. Gov. David
This year Democrat Ross Anderson hopes to
keep Cook's string of electoral defeats intact. Anderson, a
45-year-old Salt Lake civil rights attorney, is the most liberal
Democrat to run for federal office in the district for years. He is
a former Utah-board president of the American Civil Liberties Union
- a poster of Robert Kennedy looks down on Anderson's campaign
office - and his volunteers, including environmental activists,
hope to aim the district in a completely opposite direction from
that of Enid Greene Waldholtz.
Central to this
campaign lies Utah's contentious BLM wilderness debate, an issue
where there's a clear divide (HCN,
"Wilderness is very popular in this
district," Anderson says, "and I've always been for the full 5.7
Cook, who, like
Anderson, was raised a Mormon, is not willing to be pinned down.
"It's not productive right now to stake out an acreage figure," he
says. "I look at it like Teddy Roosevelt: We need to use the land
for the highest purpose for the most people for the longest time."
As for President Clinton's declaration of the
1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the
candidates could not be further apart. Ross Anderson was at Grand
Canyon for a photo opportunity with the president, grinning
broadly. Cook was calling it "outrageous - the kind of naked
federal arrogance the people of Utah have always rejected."
Aside from wilderness, few clearly defined
environmental issues have surfaced in the race, other than Salt
Lake's proposed light-rail transit systems. Cook has spent much of
his career fighting plans to build a 16-mile light-rail commuter
line through the traffic-congested Salt Lake Valley. The rest of
Utah's mostly Republican congressional delegation has fought
aggressively for federal funding and pressured Cook to get on
board. Cook now says it looks like light rail is so far down the
track that he will not oppose it, but instead act as its
Anderson calls Cook's new watchdog role
"a big-time flip-flop." Anderson has advocated light rail for a
long time, along with a beefed-up bus system, especially on the
valley's fast-growing west side.
Cook says he's
all for strong environmental laws protecting clean air, water and
endangered species, and wants miners and ranchers to pay their fair
share for using federal lands. "But all these things have to be
balanced," he says, "and the issue becomes to what extent do we
compensate people when their private property rights are affected
by environmental laws?"
Anderson counters that
Cook brags "he was contract, when contract (with America) wasn't
cool. And look what these Gingrich extremists have done -
undermining the enforcement power of the EPA under the guise of
reducing government. What guides their decisions," he says, "is
Merrill Cook is getting
downright giddy about the prospects of finally winning a political
race. With his tremendous name recognition and his deep pockets,
the polls show him ahead in this see-saw
But Anderson points to polls which show
Cook's support waning. His approval has slipped to 42 percent from
56 percent in July. Political experts wonder how strong his support
is among faithful Republican voters since twice he has run against
Republicans as an independent.
"Merrill has an
amazing proclivity for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time,"
one environmental activist notes.
This race is
Cook's to lose, and he's demonstrated over time that he is very
good at that.
Larry Warren reports
from Salt Lake City, Utah.