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Speed Dating Donors: Just One More Issue in Contentious Utah GOP Gubernatorial Primary

The idea of speed dating donors was so distasteful that even some lobbyists walked out of a meeting at the Alta Club in downtown Salt Lake City saying it made them cringe.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s campaign staff floated the fundraising approach during a meeting with more than 24 top-level lobbyists and supporters in April.

In return for donations, supporters and lobbyists would be granted some one-on-one face time with Herbert, but campaign spokesman Marty Carpenter said that was not the same as selling influence.

“The governor specifically said there will be no quid pro quo,” Carpenter said. “We put up a solid wall between financial support for our campaign and any type of political favors.”

Dave Hansen, the campaign manager for Herbert’s challenger in the upcoming Republican primary election, Jonathan Johnson, said it sounded to him like the governor was selling face time.

“Utah voters and Utah citizens should be outraged that this is going on, this Chicago-style politics, in Utah. It’s definitely not the Utah way,” said Hansen.

Johnson’s primary challenge, the intensity of the campaign, and his success at winning GOP delegate votes have shocked Herbert and the Republican Party.

Because Johnson, the chairman of Overstock.com, contributed $25,000 to the GOP through the new Chairman’s Circle program, he was allowed to address the party’s state convention in August.

Johnson used his time to surprise the convention with the announcement he would run for governor against fellow Republican, and incumbent governor, Gary Herbert.

The Deseret News reported Johnson criticized Herbert for the timing of an order that cut off Utah Planned Parenthood from receiving federal funds.

“Leadership isn’t just cheerleading or high performance ratings. Leadership isn’t taking action the day before facing Republican delegates on something we should have taken action on weeks or months or years ago,” Johnson said.

A couple of weeks later, Johnson chastised Gov. Herbert for his timing in switching positions on the issue of Common Core.

Herbert released a statement May 4 in which he asked the Utah Board of Education to “move beyond Common Core…(and) consider implementing uniquely Utah standards.”

Johnson countered on his Facebook page by saying Herbert’s change of position was “too little, too late.”

“After two terms as Governor and my calling for the removal of Common Core, Governor Herbert is finally getting it as he sent a letter to the state board of education asking them to remove the Common Core standards,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson forced Herbert into Utah’s vote-by-mail June 28 primary election when his intra-party insurgency won the Republican party’s nomination for governor by capturing 55 percent of the GOP delegate vote to Herbert’s 44 percent.

It’s only thanks to Utah’s new “Count My Vote” compromise law that Gov. Herbert’s name is even on the primary ballot. He was able to gather enough signatures to stay in the election under the law that was created as a compromise path for candidates to earn a slot on Utah election ballots.

That law is in itself a matter of contention between Gov. Herbert and the rest of the Utah GOP. The Republican Party doesn’t like the law, arguing that political parties and not candidates should decide how to fill the slots on primary election ballots.

The Utah Supreme Court rejected that argument in April.

Despite his convention defeat, and the GOP opposition to the law that allowed his name on the ballot, Herbert said he was looking forward to the primary election.

“We are excited about taking this to the next level. Rather than just 4,000 Republican delegates, we take it to the broader family of 600,000 Republicans, which I think our message will resonate very well with,” Herbert told reporters.

Johnson said he, too, was looking forward to campaigning before a larger audience.

“I’m elated,” he told FOX 13. “Eight months ago when we started this campaign, no one gave us a chance. We’ve been talking grassroots, going to the delegates. The message clearly resonated.”

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side of the Utah primary ballot, the wife of gubernatorial nominee Michael Weinholtz is under criminal investigation for possession of marijuana.

The news broke a few days before the Utah Democratic Party convention – and Weinholtz not only verified the report, he made the use of medical marijuana the primary topic of discussion.

“In the last 72 hours, we learned that my wonderful wife of 20 years, Donna, is under investigation for possession of marijuana,” Weinholtz told reporters. Then he gave a surprisingly transparent explanation. “She has only used cannabis for medical reasons to relieve her chronic pain. The issue of medical cannabis touches everyone.”

Weinholtz won 80 percent of the delegate vote and vowed to work to change Utah’s marijuana laws if elected to replace Gov. Herbert.

“The issue of the need for medical cannabis touches everyone,” Weinholtz said to a cheering crowd as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination. “I love Donna more than anything in the world, and I will stand by her and we’ll get through this just fine.”