Jim Matheson

As Utah's only Democrat to hold a federal office and nominal leader of the state's Democratic Party, Rep. Jim Matheson believes he should have a pretty big say in who the next state party chairman will be: He's picking longtime labor leader Wayne Holland Jr.

This spring's state Democratic Party convention, where new party officers will be picked for two-year terms, could be an interesting fight as one-term chairman Donald Dunn steps down.

Matheson told the Deseret Morning News' editorial board Thursday that as the leading Democratic officeholder in the state, he should have some sway and say in who the next party chairman is.

And, ironically enough, this convention battle will see a switch in positions for the well-respected Matheson family from its 1989 party involvement.

This year a well-known Matheson backs steelworker union leader Holland.

In 1989, the late Gov. Scott M. Matheson, Rep. Matheson's father, and other family members played a key role in the party-chairmanship standoff between former state Rep. Kelly Atkinson — who was backed by the labor wing of the party — and Peter Billings Jr. — backed by the Mathesons and a more well-heeled, upper-crust part of the party.

Billings won, but bad feelings remained in the party for several years.

State AFL-CIO president Ed Mayne, now a Democratic state senator, back then gave the Billings/Matheson wing of the party the moniker "the white wine and Mercedes set."

"I can say with certainty that (labor) will back Wayne," Mayne said Thursday. Reflecting on 1989, Mayne said: "Yeah, I don't know how we did that" — meaning be on the same side in a chairmanship race as the Mathesons.

"I support Wayne," Rep. Matheson said earlier in the day to newspaper editors. "He is all about winning elections, and so am I."

Even though his 2nd Congressional District is nearly 60 percent Republican in general voting preferences, Matheson has won the district twice since the Legislature redistricted him in 2001 into eastern and southern Utah, confounding GOP state leaders.

Nine people have filed to be chairman, Dunn said Thursday, although some may get out of the race before the May 7 convention.

Those who have filed besides Holland include former state Attorney General Paul Van Dam, current party vice chair Nancy Jane Woodside, and Craig Axford, a former leader in the state's Green Party who helped form a Democratic Progressive Caucus two years ago.

Traditionally, incumbent major officeholders have a say in who the state party chairman will be during their re-election years.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is running in 2006, for example, backs the re-election of state GOP chairman Joe Cannon this year.

Matheson was asked if he believes he should have a major say in who the next Democratic state chairman is.

"Yes, I do," said Matheson, who added that Democrats throughout the West often contact him to ask how he can hold office in conservative, Republican-dominated Utah.

"You take stands that reflect what the people in your district want," said Matheson, who added he plans to seek re-election next year, win, and hold the seat for elections to come.

On other topics:

• Matheson said the federal high-level nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, "is about dead" — both because of cost overruns and severe problems after it was recently learned that some scientists falsified site testing data.

"I heard in a telephone call today that Yucca will cost $58 billion" to complete. "That is a lot of money" that the debt-ridden federal government may not want to spend, said Matheson.

• While there is still a chance that Congress might vote to give Utah another U.S. House seat and give Washington, D.C., a voting House member as well, Matheson said the longer such a "balancing" debate continues, the less likely a vote is before the 2010 Census.

"I support temporarily expanding the House from 435 members to 437 members," he said, and a bill to do that has been reintroduced in the House. "It's ridiculous that the people of the district don't have a vote in Congress."

The political problem, said Matheson, is that after the 2010 Census, Washington, D.C., would still have one member, who would undoubtedly be a Democrat. Because of its growing population, Utah would keep the fourth seat, which would likely be a Republican.

But when the total number of House members dropped back to 435, who can say if that other "lost" seat would be a Republican or not "It only temporarily would be one more Democrat (from D.C.) and one more Republican (from Utah)," Matheson explained.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com