Bonham steers toward rural voters
November 4, 2006
Kissing babies, it seems, won’t deliver District 53 for Laura Bonham on Election Day. Rounding up a herd of hoofed, slaughterhouse-bound campaign donations, her camp hopes, will put her into office.
In an unorthodox political strategy, one that illustrates her side’s urgent bid for rural votes, the Bonham campaign has been amassing thousands of dollars worth of livestock donations. It is a strategy to portray the Coalville Democrat as someone who can represent the rural parts of the district even as she leans to the political left, rallying with demonstrators last summer in Salt Lake City during mass protests marking a visit by President George W. Bush.
Bonham, who is in her third campaign for the House of Representatives, including one as a member of the Green Party, realizes that she will likely be routed again without securing thousands of votes outside her base in the Park City area. Bonham acknowledges that the livestock donations are an attempt to spread goodwill in the rural parts of the district, where the farming and ranching industries dominate. With the exception of Park City, "the entire district is agriculture," she says.
"It helps me get my name out to voters in the area. I look at that as a very positive way to spend campaign funds," Bonham says, describing the arrangement as a "win-win-win."
According to Bonham and campaign-finance reports released by state elections officials midweek, the candidate’s $46,275.95 in donations includes $20,000 in cattle. Three people donated the animals, she says.
Bonham says Tiffany Farnsworth, who is from Wanship, Teresa Mikesell, from Park City, and Springdale resident Bonnie Suerig purchased $20,000 worth of livestock at the Summit County Fair. They then donated the animals to the campaign. Bonham says the livestock was grazing this week and she plans to donate the animals. She is unsure what organizations will receive them.
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The arrangement resembles one disclosed earlier in Bonham’s campaign involving Rob Weyher, the chief of the Summit County Democratic Party. Through his business interests, he has donated more than $11,400 in cash and services. The donations include livestock he bought at the Morgan County Fair that he then donated to Bonham. She later gave the meat from the animals to senior-citizen centers in Summit County.
Weyher’s livestock and the later $20,000 in animals represent about half of her campaign donations, she says.
Reed Wilde, the chairman of the Morgan County Council, a Republican who raises sheep and cattle, says the strategy amuses him. He labels it "a foolish tactic" and "baloney what she’s doing."
"Rather than being offended, I would think it’s funny," he says. "She’s pretending to be a livestock person with roots in the agriculture industry."
The campaign-finance reports from the major-party candidates have provided fodder for weeks. Bonham has tried to label Republican Mel Brown, who did not seek re-election during a previous tenure in the House after an ethics probe tarnished his reputation, as an industry insider, highlighting his corporate donations as evidence. Brown, meanwhile, has questioned Bonham’s arrangement with the livestock.
The reports show that Bonham is outpacing her opponents, having spent $37,425.72. She had $8,850.23 for the final week of the campaign. Bonham had raised and spent more than twice the combined donations and expenditures of Brown and Gary Shumway, a Libertarian seeking the seat.
Brown is expected to easily beat Bonham and Shumway. Bonham will likely see her best returns in the Park City area but Brown will probably dominate the rest of the district, which stretches over parts of Summit, Rich, Morgan, Wasatch and Daggett counties.
Brown has campaigned on a platform of traditional Utah values while Bonham has pointed to what she sees as a need for diversity at the Statehouse, among other campaign planks. The candidates have faced each other in a series of generally uneventful campaign forums, the latest on Thursday night in Wasatch County, which Brown skipped. They are competing to replace David Ure, the veteran Republican legislator from Kamas who did not seek re-election, opting for an unsuccessful attempt to win a seat in the state Senate.
Bonham’s returns in 2004 and 2002 underscore her need to make inroads outside of the Park City area. In 2004, she received 36.3 percent of the district-wide vote, badly trailing Ure’s 61.7 percent. Her showing outside of Summit County was weaker than her overall performance. Ure defeated her by an almost 4-1 margin outside Summit County.
In 2002, when she ran as a Green Party candidate, she finished third, throttled by Ure and Weyher, who ran as a Democrat that year, in each county. On Election Day 2002, Bonham’s showing was especially poor in Rich County, where she received two votes, less than .01 percent of the tally in the county.
Kelly Patterson, a political scientist at Brigham Young University who has followed campaigns in Utah since 1992, says he has not heard of a strategy similar to Bonham’s. He calls it "certainly unique and certainly innovative."
He says candidates from one part of a district must show that they can represent other parts. Patterson says Bonham could score votes in the rural parts of the district if people do not dismiss the livestock as a campaign stunt.
"Sometimes a campaign strategy is a campaign strategy and voters look at it and say this person is not sincere," he says.
Brown and others are unconvinced. Brown says "not very many" voters will be swayed. He charges that Bonham will not protect the property rights of farmers and ranchers she is wooing if she wins.
Brent Tanner, an executive with the Utah Cattlemen’s Association, which represents the beef industry, says Brown will win big regardless of Bonham’s push outside of Park City.
"I think you’ll find the rural voters tend to be loyal and tend to recognize people who have supported them," he says. "I think the rural voters would rather see strong substance on issues."