Utah: A liberal wilderness lover may prevail

  • Merrill Cook with his wife, Camille

    Carmen Troesser/Deseret News
  • Ross Anderson at primary election party last June

    Carmen Troesser/Deseret News

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 politicians.

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 district.

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 Monson.

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, 12/25/95).

"Wilderness is very popular in this district," Anderson says, "and I've always been for the full 5.7 million-acre proposal."

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 watchdog.

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 short-term money."

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 district.

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.

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- A "down time" for Utah environmentalists

This article is part of a feature package - about the 1996 election - that includes these other articles:

- Greens prune their message to win the West's voters

- Colorado: Environment wielded like a hammer in tight Senate race

- Montana: A scrappy Republican tries to cut down a green Democrat

- California: A 28-year-old talks the talk to green voters

- Montana: For veteran Baucus, it seems to be in the bag

- Washington: Greens storm the suburbs

- Arizona: Harvesting a bumper crop of bombast

- Nevada: Who hates nuclear waste most?

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