Utah begins calculating political cost of scandal

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Since the Salt Lake Olympics scandal broke last November, the focus has been on reform in hope of stemming both economic and symbolic costs. Now it's apparent that there is a political cost, as well.

In the aftermath, Salt Lake City's mayor has chosen not to run again, giving up her dream of serving during the Olympics. A councilwoman and vocal Olympics critic has also decided to leave politics. And all eyes are on the governor and whether his enormous support will shrink as the blame spreads.

But perhaps most intriguing is how this international embarrassment has affected the citizens of Utah, a Mormon-dominated state long known for its political naivet and deference to authority.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

"It's made a lot of people very testy about the Olympics," says Councilwoman Deeda Seed. "Some are already questioning whether we should have hosted the Olympics in the first place, and there is some spillover to government in general."

Indeed, detractors have already gathered 3,000 signatures on petitions seeking to put Olympics indebtedness on the ballot in 2000. The petitioners want to prevent Utah from having to make up any shortfalls the city incurs, as it is required to do under a 1991 contract. Mitt Romney, the new president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC), has ordered major cutbacks in the Games budget, and has told the US Olympic Committee that SLOC will not be paying for a major publicity effort in the scandal's wake.

For Utahns, one of the major questions is whether the upheaval will leave any lasting marks on the people and politics of Utah.

"Down the road, this will be the coming out of public skepticism," says Ted Wilson, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a former Salt Lake City mayor. "This didn't come from the fringe ... it came from the center of Main Street in Utah's authority and power."

Watershed event

Mr. Wilson sees the Olympics scandal as a watershed event in the history of Utah politics. "Being a mainstream state, we're a people who believe in our leaders," he says. "You never again will see anything in this state sold as easily as the Olympics."

By nature, Utahns are not a cynical people, but they have just witnessed their leaders falter with enormous repercussions. "They don't believe it was just Tom Welch and Dave Johnson," Mr. Wilson says, speaking of two former SLOC officials who have been blamed for portions of the scandal. "The impression of failed leadership goes much deeper."

Mayor Deedee Corradini, who had been involved in the Olympic bid process, sensed that when she made her decision not to run again. "With the general depression of December in Utah, the Olympics falling apart on us, and the mayor looking at some pretty negative polls, she was just very tired," says Wilson, a longtime Corradini confidant.

Exhausted by scandal

Ms. Seed felt the same. "It was after a month of dealing with the Olympics scandal that I really decided I didn't have it in me again to run," she says. "It exhausted me, and sucked all the joy out of the job."

The Olympics was not solely responsible, Seed says, "but that set the emotional environment for my decision," says Seed.

On a larger scale, Gov. Mike Leavitt has been deflecting suggestions that he, too, should have recognized the signs of Olympic bribery. Both he and the mayor had just declared the Olympics budget a success when Mr. Romney announced a shortfall of at least $300 million. Seed says the scandal may have quelled Governor Leavitt's ambitions for higher office. But with a popularity rating in the 80 percent range, his stock has fallen only marginally. How the rest of the scandal plays out will be key. "If this thing goes on unfettered and Mitt Romney gets the Games in shape, I guarantee this will have no effect on Mike Leavitt's future," Wilson says.

First signs of fallout

But the Games are not yet on sure footing. Salt Lake is just entering campaign season with the mayor's race attracting a large field of candidates, each professing integrity in the handling of Olympics matters. The mayoral race, Wilson says, may hold the first hints of the political fallout from the scandal.

"I think the voters are a little more turned off than they have been," he says. "There's a certain antipathy toward government and elections, and the voters are looking for people who can build a reputation for being extraordinarily frank.

"As the nation looks for morality, Utah looks for credibility."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...