Call it compassionate liberalism — it's the message that was emanating from the Salt Lake County Democratic Convention Saturday taking form with a new push to increase the minimum wage in Utah to $7 an hour.

While in its infancy, the wage thrust is one issue many Democrats think will be supported by the public as well as advance their message of remembering the poor.

County Mayor Peter Corroon delivered the convention's keynote address at Highland High School, and while he didn't touch on the minimum wage issue specifically, he outlined the compassionate philosophy and theology behind it.

"I'm a Democrat because of my religious beliefs," Corroon said. Adding that "Democrats don't abandon religious principles that teach us to take care of the less fortunate."

Part of that principled agenda will be an effort to get a ballot referendum in 2006 calling for Utah to create a statewide minimum wage at $7 per hour, $1.85 higher than the federal minimum. The wage issue was introduced in several morning caucus meetings and was supported by the party's Labor Caucus and Hispanic Caucus, among others.

In the afternoon, the entire convention voted to support the measure, which is being pushed by organized labor groups and anti-poverty organizations. With county Democrats on board, backers hope to gain the support of the state convention next month. From there they will seek support from state's religious community, the general public and eventually legislators.

Kent Anderson, head of the Communications Workers of America Local 7704, said he believes faith-based groups will happily support the effort since they often deal with the impacts of poverty induced by low wages — a problem most advocates say is the leading cause of indigence in Utah.

"We want religious organizations to endorse it," he said.

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Anderson maintains the state's largest church should back the plan since it would strengthen families by creating less financial hardship on low-income parents.

"I think the LDS Church supports anything that strengthens the economic stability of families," he said.

Besides labor groups, the Hispanic caucus voiced support — noting in the resolution it passed that "racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately paid the federal minimum wage," which has been $5.15 an hour since 1997.

With no increase at the federal level wage, advocates maintain the state must move to $7 an hour to help poor workers make ends meet.

To get the referendum on the 2006 ballot, two-thirds of both houses of the state Legislature would need to approve the issue — a high threshold in the Republican-dominated Legislature. Then, to become law, a majority of voters would also need to approve.

If the referendum effort fails to gain traction with state lawmakers, Anderson said they may attempt other strategies, like a ballot initiative.

County Democrats also elected new officers Saturday and tapped a new representative to take over the District 29 House seat vacated by Brent Goodfellow, who is moving to the Senate. Megan Risbon was elected to chair the county Democrats while former West Valley City Councilwoman Janice Fisher was picked to fill the House seat.


E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com