Pignanelli: When outgoing Democratic State Party chairman Donald Dunn departs for his honeymoon in June (with outgoing Salt Lake County Democratic Party chairwoman Nicole Adams), he will leave more than just bachelorhood. His energetic and sometimes controversial style energized friends and detractors to either continue or alter the direction he set for the party. Veteran Democrats cannot recall in the past 25 years when the chairman's race has attracted so many contenders. While such enthusiasm is welcome news for Utah Democrats, the direction of the party is at stake.
The wannabes to replace Dunn are incredibly diverse in philosophical leanings and political acumen. Current Vice Chairwoman Nancy Woodsides has won several delegate battles in prior campaigns. Former Attorney General Paul Van Dam was the early favorite to win the race, but he is on an extended sailing trip and will miss the county conventions and other opportunities to schmooze with delegates. Park City businessman and Summit County Party chairman Mike Marty is a well-known moderate. Community and low-income-rights activist Leon Johnson has also filed. Fresh from her legislative internship, Young Democratic leader Tracy VanWagoner is contemplating a bid as well as former legislative candidate Jan Lovett.
This election may coalesce into a struggle between the two candidates who possess extensive organizing experience, special interest group support and the backing of the titular leaders of Utah Democrats. Former Green Party congressional candidate Craig Axford (who converted to the Democratic faith in 2003) now leads the ultra-left Progressive Caucus, which will provide him a formidable base of delegates. His Green Party background has many traditional Democrats anxious; some have threatened defection if he is elected. Wayne Holland Jr. and his father Wayne Holland are longtime beloved figures within the labor movement and the Democratic Party. A charismatic and attractive union organizer, Holland Jr. brings a wealth of knowledge and a bucket full of labor delegates. Axford has a close personal relationship with Rocky Anderson (although no formal endorsement yet) and the rabid support of the Rockyites. Holland was encouraged to run by Congressman Jim Matheson and other moderate factions inside the party.The Matheson family has always refrained from involvement in internal party elections. The aggressive entry by the congressman into this foray is a welcome activity, as Democrats are in need of his pragmatic skills and statewide popularity. Rocky and Matheson understand the importance of a sympathetic party leader. Although their names will not be on the ballot, the election for chairman will be a clear choice for where Democrats want to go Rocky or Matheson and their well-known differences of personality and priorities.
Webb: On the Republican side, not much drama is expected at the state level with Joe Cannon and Enid Greene seeking re-election as chairman and vice-chairwoman. They will likely face opposition but should be able to handily retain their posts. They have the support of most GOP elected officials and county party leaders, particularly Sen. Orrin Hatch, who will lead the ticket in 2006. It's customary for the top officeholder next up for election to have significant influence on who will lead the party.
Some political supporters of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. are less than enthusiastic about having Cannon and Greene continue for two more years. They felt that during the gubernatorial campaign last year the party hierarchy was too close to and supportive of Huntsman opponent Nolan Karras, exemplified by the fact that Greene left the party vice chairmanship to join Karras as his lieutenant governor running mate. She was then allowed to return to her party post after Huntsman defeated Karras in the primary election.
Despite the old political wounds, Cannon and Greene apparently have Huntsman's blessing to continue for two more years, although the governor's people have made it clear they want new party leadership in 2007, in advance of Huntsman's 2008 re-election.
While the state GOP is in reasonably good shape, the Salt Lake County party is in trouble both internally and in terms of election results. For years, the county party has been besieged by a small group of rabble-rousing dissidents who oppose party leadership. They can be counted on to disrupt nearly every meeting with a barrage of procedural motions dealing with the party constitution and bylaws.
While the dissidents aren't usually successful, the constant bickering and infighting becomes terribly tiresome. Normal people with real lives get fed up and figure they have better things to do than expend emotional energy fighting with unreasonable zealots.
And while the party fiddles internally, the Democrats are winning elections. While polls show Republicans still outnumber
Democrats in Salt Lake County, you wouldn't have known it from the 2004 results, when Republicans got clobbered in several races. Even Jon Huntsman, who won big statewide, lost by 20,000 votes in the county to Scott Matheson. That has to be a wake-up call. The reality is that east-bench Republicans are more than happy to vote for good Democratic candidates at all levels.So new county party leaders have a big job ahead. Former Salt Lake County Council member Steve Harmsen and former state senator James Evans, both defeated in 2004, are the frontrunners for county chairman. They apparently don't want to run against each other, and one may drop out and support the other. The winner must seek to eliminate the internal squabbling so the party can focus hard on candidate recruitment and grass-roots organizing to win elections.
Republican LaVarr Webb was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. He now is a political consultant and lobbyist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. A former candidate for Salt Lake City mayor, Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. Pignanelli's spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is executive director of the state Department of Administrative Services in the Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. administration. E-mail: email@example.com.