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Fear and Dolan in Sandy

Bold and bodacious, Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan is not a good loser.



Trisha Beck just wore her feet out. She walked and walked and walked, campaigning until she had to just sit down, and then lie down and let them operate. She should have considered brain surgery. There she was, a Democrat in maybe the most Republican district in Utah. Not because of her massive public appeal, but by default, in a way. Beloved Kurt Oscarson, a Democrat and educator who’d held House District 48 since 1987, died 10 years later, while still in office. Oscarson had somehow managed to hold on to a district that took in a good chunk of Sandy City, the Green Giant of Republican strongholds.

Beck didn’t even know she was a Democrat until Oscarson passed on. She could have been something else, but she was too into people issues and social justice and things like that. You’re a Democrat, aren’t you? they asked. The Democratic Party was looking for a mayoral candidate, and just figured it was Beck. She had to think about it a minute. She’d been lobbying on Capitol Hill for years, but never did much interacting with Democrats. Not because they were powerless, but because they agreed with her. So she and her husband, Ron, sat down that night to talk.

“We both went through the same transformation that night,” says Beck, who took the nomination and got the nod from the governor.

Tom Dolan was always a big guy, and very much a city boy. He lived right in the middle of the nation’s capital. You could walk four blocks and be at the seat of government. Not far off was the shrine of the Washington National Cathedral.

His father was a fireman and his mother a nurse. They were an average family with average expectations for their oldest, Mary, and for Tom, who was something of an athlete. At community college, he did some wrestling and played football. He really liked football. Tom got it in his head to play football at Brigham Young University. Not that he was Mormon. He just hung out with this group of guys who decided they’d go off to BYU.

Then came the car accident. Tom was pretty busted up—his knee, his back. But oddly, it was his broken toe that took six months to heal. He sat out of school until 1964, when he entered BYU. But he wasn’t playing football, and he eventually lost interest in the Y and moved to the University of Utah for his last year.

When he graduated, he had a degree in history and a wife, but no great prospects. He thought about law school, but he figured the world in 1967 didn’t really need another lawyer. For sure, Washington, DC, didn’t need one. When Tom and Linda Dolan made their way back east, they found an area that had changed tremendously, grown by the millions in just years. Their son was born there, but there wasn’t much else to hold them. It didn’t take them long to realize how much they wanted to move back west. They decided on Denver, Linda’s hometown, where Dolan worked as a claims adjuster and agent.

During his seven years in Colorado, Dolan made a decision that would bolster him for the rest of his life. “My wife is a very patient person,” Dolan says. “Over time, I gave the LDS church an honest look. She never put pressure on me. I examined it, and accepted it.”

Sandy City started out as a vast expanse of flat nothingness, except for the Wasatch Mountains that stand sentry to the east. Mormon settlers put up homes in the 1860s, when there was silver to be mined up Little Cottonwood Canyon. According to historian Martha Sonntag Bradley, Sandy was settled by miners who had the foresight to till the soil, and thus survived the failure of the mines in 1890. But the city didn’t have much identity. Bradley called it a “collection of little worlds,” with no particular attachments. “A city of space.” That’s one way to describe nothing.

Overnight, all that changed. In the 1970s, Salt Lake City experienced a period of urban flight to the suburbs. Sandy City became “an intersection of real estate and money,” according to Bradley.

Saloons and brothels that had given way to farms and families became the subdivisions of the ’70s, and later, expansive malls and developments. From the aging quaintness of Salt Lake City, white-hard freeways curve south to the strict, clean lines of huge new office complexes, theaters and stores that cry wealth, power and solidarity.

In 1970, Sandy counted 6,438 citizens. Today, it celebrates becoming a First-Class city, breaking 100,000. In the decade between 1970 and 1980, Sandy was the fastest growing city in the United States.

Transformations—personal, political, historical—that’s what Sandy is all about. A little more than a decade ago, Tom Dolan was just one of a bunch of guys playing at politics in a nasty little city that tended to eat its politicians for lunch. A few years later, he was a long-shot mayoral candidate whom the press called “a relative unknown who dabbles in property management and public relations.” Today, you can walk into City Hall and ask for Mayor Tom. Anyone who knows anyone in Salt Lake County knows Tom Dolan, balding and bodacious. Beneficent to his friends, biting to his foes, he’s the man. The only person since 1977, when Sandy opted for a full-time mayor, who’s won office for two consecutive terms.

Historian Bradley takes the municipal acrimony back to 1969, when, she says, “The old-timers, who had cordially swapped political offices among themselves in a neighborly way for 70 years, were swamped by the rising population of newcomers.”

Beck, one of three challengers to the mayor this year, calls Dolan “the god of Sandy.” And she means to take him down a peg or two. But these days, taking on Tom Dolan means taking on the Sandy Republican Club, too. And that is no small task. “I have run against Tom Dolan and his club in races before,” Beck says. “I know the games they play, and I’m ready for them.”

Dolan got involved in politics in the ’80s, when he’d truly settled in Sandy after bouncing back and forth from East to West. The Dolans went back east in ’74 to live near his widowed mother in the Maryland suburbs. They stayed for five years, during which Dolan worked for a pharmaceutical company. When his sister moved back to the area, Dolan jumped at an offer from a hospital supply company to move to Utah and work some of Idaho and Montana.

Sandy looked like home. It reminded the Dolans of Littleton, Colo., the Denver suburb where they’d lived. There was space to grow.

In 1989, Dolan met a group of people working on Larry Smith’s campaign. Politics became his pastime. Larry Smith became a project. Smith had become mayor in 1981, but was defeated in a three-way primary in ’85. He was out to beat Steve Newton, the city councilman who’d beat him in that election.

There was a core of people who helped paint over Smith’s old signs and come up with new campaign strategies. One of them was Rich Kuchinsky, who talked about Republican clubs back East and suggested they do something like that here. Kuchinsky became the first elected president of the Sandy Republican Club, and this year he is running for Sandy City Council. Another club member was Doug Short, who’d become the Salt Lake County Commission’s nemesis as County Attorney. There was Kelly Cassady, too, now on Dolan’s staff and working on his campaign.

When Smith won, his little campaign group formed the Sandy Action Committee, a transition team that one city councilman called a “conglomeration of special interest people with many separate agendas who have become a strongly negative influence in the city.” The group included Kuchinsky, Short and Judy Bell, who would become a city council member. But over the next few years, something happened between the group and Smith.

“Larry saw the people who put him in as such a cohesive group that he tried to divide out their power and split them out,” says Short. “He started to play games and lied to people.”

Some in the group were promised positions with the city, but didn’t get them. There was general dissatisfaction. It was time to take Larry Smith out, and they chose Dolan to do it.

He did so in the primary, with some muscle from the county. Dolan was referred to as a newcomer to politics who “sparked a grassroots movement among the city’s angry-citizen faction.” But Dolan was smart enough to activate anger from up top, as well. County Commissioners Randy Horiuchi and Brent Overson endorsed Dolan before the primary election. They just didn’t like Smith’s confrontational style, his policy of aggressive annexation and what they saw as his attempt to nickel-and-dime the county on issues.

For Dolan, these were important relationships that would pay off down the road.

Linda Martinez Saville, a city councilwoman for six years now, makes many of her relationships from her patio in the middle of the city. That’s where she sits and talks to people, hears them honking as they go by. And that’s largely where she’s conducting her mayoral campaign. She says she’s kind of tired of her outward-looking mayor, but she doesn’t want to make him the issue. “I’ve lived here 43 years, and I’ve always been active in the community anyway. I felt I had a really big chance of winning, and with my husband on the police department, I knew the issues and could be a voice,” she says.

In fact, her husband, Gary, once ran for mayor himself. Linda plans to run and win. “I think I have the bigger picture, a different vision, not the direction from the mayor,” Saville says. “I am different. First off, I’m a woman who’s lived here my whole life. Tom has lived here 10 years and has been mayor for eight.”

Being a woman could be significant. It was only in the 1970s when women first began winning places on the city council, and no woman has been mayor. Now, three women are challenging Dolan.

Saville is putting the feminine touch on her campaign. “I weigh 105 and am 5-foot-1, and I’ve always had jobs that are challenging. And I’m not afraid of doing them,” she says.

A grandmother, Saville taught special education in the Jordan School District for 13 years and has been executive director of the Sandy Club Inc., A Safe Place for Boys and Girls, for the last eight years.

She has focused on domestic violence and helped get West Jordan’s South Valley Sanctuary up and running. Saville basks in her touchy-feely aura. “It’s time for valid concerns to be addressed through public involvement, so government can alleviate tension and find solutions,” her literature says. She uses words like “nurture” and “foster.”

And while the Sandy Republican Club calls her a Democrat, she calls herself independent. “I am not a professional politician. I don’t have plans of going anywhere else or doing this for a career,” she says.

There’s talk that Dolan has bigger plans. Like becoming governor. “Yeah,” Dolan squints, like it hurts. “I hear that. I’m not into it to become somebody who other people think is important. I want to be mayor of Sandy.”

Sylvia Marlowe Brunisholz is running for mayor, too, although she’s not entirely sure she wants the job. “I ran for city council last time, and I got 1,331 votes without any money. I did it just to drive them crazy, and I did it with just my wall. I made it through the primaries and I about died,” Brunisholz says. By wall, she means the one she painted with campaign slogans.

Brunisholz, a 50-year-old mom who’s back in school studying social work, has plenty to complain about. She got upset over a shopping center on 9400 South. It was supposed to be a nice condominium development. She wasn’t happy with all the dust from construction—especially in her garden—but at least her screaming helped push the owners to an architecturally pleasing design.

“I was a perfect housewife and a good neighbor, good friend, good PTA person,” she says. “I took care of abused children for the state, and it made me realize how the underdog is in the world.”

Brunisholz doesn’t think the mayor much likes her. She asked him straight out why he’d make Judy Bell his public works director. “She’s his water lady, and he won’t tell me what her qualifications are. She gave Dolan free office space, and suddenly she’s appointed to public works.”

Bell, in fact, is one of Dolan’s Sandy Republican buddies, and was a city councilwoman when Dolan made the appointment. “Judy Bell is one tough hombre,” says a Dolan compatriot. “The mayor once gave her a set of brass balls. She’s his pit bull.”

Brunisholz has her own heavyweights, one of whom is her brother. “My brother was chief operating officer of Occidental Oil,” she says. “He’s retired and he’s willing to put his expertise to work for Sandy City without any money. I have no hopes of winning, but if people want what this country was founded on, then they could get two people who were willing to sacrifice four years to make Sandy a running company.”

Sandy’s tax base hasn’t exactly faltered under Dolan, despite his lack of business acumen. Ken Prince, who lost to Dolan in ’93, said the city turned over “what amounts to a multimillion-dollar operation to a complete unknown.” Dolan responded that it was more of the “old-boy network.” Funny how that works.

But Dolan actually did file Chapter 13 bankruptcy around the time he was elected mayor. He says he had some business problems selling his own medical equipment. Over a period of three years, however, he paid off his debts. And his election disclosure from ’93 shows he even managed to put $4,000 of his own money into his campaign.

Dolan is both brilliant and puzzling when it comes to the city’s financial health. He’s under fire now for spending municipal tax money on a fire station rather than the investigative services it was meant for. And yet there’s no question that his personal ties have translated into tax dollars for the city.

Take the Automall, for instance. Dolan managed to talk a guy named Larry Miller into buying a lot of property and opening a Subaru dealership in the area. “Larry thought I was crazy,” says Dolan, who firmly believed growth would make Sandy the center of the valley. Obviously, he was right.

The Larry Miller connection is a good illustration of how Dolan became a phenomenon by luck and charm. Dolan went up to Miller at a restaurant once, and asked Miller if he remembered him. Yeah, Miller offered, didn’t they go to high school together?

“We were in the same ward in Littleton,” says Dolan. “I was his home teacher.”

Kismet. Miller was an old Sandy boy. Even though he’d moved to Salt Lake City’s Avenues, he wanted to maintain an office in his home city. Jordan Commons was the offshoot of that, and a boon to the city. “Larry Miller has never asked Sandy City for anything,” says Dolan. “He brought his vision to Jordan Commons and now there’s 250,000 square feet, fully leased.”

Miller is also invested in Sandy’s Entrepreneurial Center, in which he built 11 buildings that he donated to the community college.

When you’re a friend of Dolan’s, you’re a fast friend—and a potential political ally. Even Gov. Mike Leavitt came out to endorse Dolan in his last election. He just likes the guy, Leavitt said.

“Tom Dolan is a very nice, fair-minded guy,” says his club bud Kuchinsky. “He’s always non-assuming, and his popularity stems from the fact that he doesn’t display an egotistic attitude or feeling of self-importance. He really listens to what other people have to say and at times pokes fun at himself.”

Inside Dolan’s office is an old 4-by-8 campaign sign: “Vote for Tom Dolan,” it says. Scrawled across the top are the words, “Lord Help Us.” It was meant to be pejorative. Dolan figured he’d keep it because he could use the extra help.

On the wall is an in-your-face picture of an invitation to one of his golf tournaments. It features a fat guy in plaid pants bending over to pick a ball out of a cup. Close up on the bending over.

“Everybody who plays with me knows I’m not any good,” Dolan says. “For eight years, I’ve hit the ground instead of the ball.”

Dolan donates tournament proceeds to scholarships and children’s charities. The people who play with him, however, like the networking opportunity as much as anything.

Trisha Beck looks at the network and sees a challenge. It all became perfectly clear to her after she became a legislator. Dolan sent someone to the House chambers to congratulate Beck on her appointment. She remembers it like it was yesterday. “Your mayor said to tell you congratulations and to stay out of the water issue,” she says. She had to wonder, “what water issue?” Beck began studying it immediately, and later asked both the White City Water District and Sandy City to provide answers to questions she was dealing with, in an open forum.

Water has long been an issue in Sandy, where demand quickly outpaced availability. White City, an unincorporated area surrounded by Sandy, manages a water district that serves a few Sandy residents and entices a lot of Sandy politicians. “I was so confused,” says Beck. “I wanted to understand this issue.”

She set up a meeting at the library. It took 10 minutes before Dolan got hot under the collar. Beck says he was looking pretty angry, and wanted to know when it all would end. He had dinner waiting for him. “I said, ‘Sit down, Tom. At least you have dinner waiting. I have to go home and cook it,’” Beck says.

That’s the way she is. Just a tad confrontational. But Beck has earned her stripes. She became an activist and citizen lobbyist more than 18 years ago, while pregnant with her second child, when she was assaulted by two women who were being evicted from an apartment. The boy was born with Downs Syndrome and other complications. As Beck was being discharged from the hospital, she was told that her insurance company was essentially bankrupt and her family would face bills that amounted to $100,000 that first year.

With a self-employed husband, Beck had to make it work. “Our saving factor was that we had food storage,” she says. Ann Landers helped, too. The newspaper columnist told one letter-writer to quit complaining and do something about his problem. Beck took it to heart.

Uninsurable herself, Beck began lobbying at the Capitol for children with disabilities. She was so successful that she was asked to speak around the country. In 1990, while pregnant with her fifth child, she was instrumental in starting a health insurance pool for the uninsurable. She worked on legislation from the hospital, in a wheelchair due to a complicating blood clot. She was pregnant with her sixth child—and in another life-threatening situation—when she continued to campaign for the law. She says it always stuns her when people say Democrats don’t care about life.

“I was willing to give my life for that baby; I was that critical,” she says. “My pregnancy was between me, my family and my God.”

That was the sort of thing that impressed the party to nominate her. Since becoming a legislator, she’s had several run-ins with Dolan. Many of them were over what she sees as an openness issue. Dolan didn’t like her taking problems to the people, she says.

Some lobbyists told her she’d be history if she kept fighting like she did. When she came up for re-election, she found herself fending off Sandy Republican Club tactics. “They always pull in the Mormon church,” says Beck, herself a Mormon. “They started whisper campaigns to indicate I’m immoral or dishonest, but I wasn’t going to let them take me out.”

One prominent Sandy Republican who worked on a task force with her struck out face-to-face during their first meeting. “He said, ‘Listen, if you’d taken care of yourself physically and spiritually, you wouldn’t have a child like this,’” Beck says.

In the intimate, LDS world of Sandy, no one’s business is private. But the network is there. Beck certainly has hers.

She remembers telling her dubious mother, Harriet Snarr, about her legislative nomination. Her mother called in one of her brothers, Dan, who’d actually been thinking of running for office himself. “OK, that’s it,” Beck recalls him saying. “I’m running for mayor of Murray.” To Dan Snarr’s facetious slogan, No B.S., vote for D.S., Beck says she responded, “Well, you just took the sweat off me, darlin’.”

So now, with her brother serving as Murray’s mayor, Beck has decided to go for a mayoral seat herself. The Legislature’s redistricting exercise very likely could doom her future there, anyway.

This year was supposed to be all muscle and clout for Dolan. He’s known Nancy Workman, the new county mayor, for a decade as a friend. He’s being courted in support of Winston Wilkinson, a new county councilman and Sandy resident who’s itching to run for Congress. Randy Horiuchi and Jim Bradley—both friends and former county commissioners—are back in office as county councilmen. And those Dan Jones polls keep saying people just love living in Sandy.

Then one night when he was out watering the flowers, Dolan’s wife came out, tears streaming down her face. Sam Dawson, Sandy’s police chief, had been killed in a motorcycle accident.

“When I took office, our police department was not well-respected,” Dolan says. “I hired Sam from the county. He had a plan; he’d lived in Sandy for 20 years and he was absolutely devoted to making this a great community. He was my golf buddy and he wouldn’t laugh at my golf stroke.”

And he was Dolan’s best friend. Dawson’s death was a blow to a seemingly unstoppable machine called the Sandy mayor.

Dolan’s seen changes in himself. For one, he’s a workaholic now. He doesn’t take good care of his health, but he’s managing his temper better. Sometimes. But, he says, one thing hasn’t changed. “I don’t like to lose,” he says. “I’m not a good loser.”