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August Miller, Deseret Morning News
Rep. Jim Matheson talks with fellow Democrats during the state convention Saturday at the Salt Palace.

With hard-thumping rock music drifting through Salt Palace folding doors from a team dance competition in the next hall, Utah Democrats on Saturday picked new state party officers while taking a few shots at Republicans, who have ruled here for a quarter century.

Wayne Holland Jr., a lifelong labor union leader, was narrowly chosen by Democratic delegates to head the state party for the next two years, current chairman Donald Dunn having decided to retire after just one term.

A record eight candidates filed for the chairman's office, and it took two ballots to pick a winner. Holland beat out Jan Lovett, who ran for the Utah House from West Jordan in 2004, in the final round by just 25 votes, 377-352. A number of the original 1,200 delegates left before the final ballot was taken about 4 p.m., ending what was for some a 10-hour convention.

Oddly enough for Democrats, all four party positions went to men, even though five women were candidates in the chair, vice chair, treasurer and secretary field.

Perhaps because there were so many good candidates to chose from in the chairmanship race, this party election didn't exhibit some of the nastiness of recent intraparty contests, although labels were easily attached Saturday by a few of the candidates.

Holland, a union steelworker representative, was labeled the labor union candidate, while other chair candidates were seen as backing newly picked Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, representing the current party hierarchy, or being from the party's liberal wing.

How Democrats can win in such a "red," Republican state was much-discussed Saturday. Chair candidate Tracy Van Wagoner said Utah Democrats' problem in losing elections actually has a fairly simple solution: "We just need to be likable again."

U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who has been criticized by some Utah Democrats for being too conservative, had a warm reception Saturday. Last year about 50 delegates stood up and turned their backs on Matheson as he addressed the 2004 state party convention, apparently unhappy with his favorable vote in Congress to define marriage as only between a man and a woman. No such protest was seen Saturday. However, while some delegates stood and cheered Matheson, others sat quietly, not even clapping.

"We've had some tough fights" both inside and outside of the party, said Matheson. "We can use diversity as a strength and come together, not let wedges divide us.

"Utah Democrats have wandered in the political wilderness too long. I'm about winning elections. And I'm a little lonely."

Matheson is Utah's sole Democratic congressman and the minority party's highest officeholder.

For several decades, Utah Democratic leaders and officeholders have argued over how the party should present itself here.

Vice chairman candidate Josh Ewing, a former spokesperson for Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, said a balance must be reached. Utah Democrats can't win elections if "we can't recognize" that some in the party have "strong liberal ideas."

But, Democrats also can't win if "we bash Republicans and members of the LDS Church," Ewing added.

The convention was upbeat — after all, Democrats took a few offices away from Republicans in the 2004 elections and a little crowing was in order.

While saying Democrats didn't win as many races as they should have, Dunn said, "We've accomplished a great deal. We've re-energized the party. And we are proud to be Utah Democrats."

Democrats took the Salt Lake County mayor's race (after the GOP mayor self-destructed in a government scandal), took one more Salt Lake County Council seat and picked up a state House and Senate seat in the county.

And, of course, Matheson won re-election with his largest margin ever.

But Democrats didn't come close to winning the U.S. Senate seat and governor's office in 2004. And Republicans hold an iron grip on statewide politics.

Said Utah Democratic national committeeman and former U.S. Rep. Bill Orton, "If we don't win elections, not much else matters. We can't govern."

The internal Democratic debate on whether Utah Democrats should be true to some traditional party stands or push more practical, election-winning candidates and issues, was revisited Saturday.

Matheson said practical politics and electing good Democrats, who by governing well can prove themselves to voters, is paramount. Matheson endorsed Holland, as did the congressman's older brother, Scott Matheson Jr. (who ran for governor last year) and their mother, former first lady Norma Matheson.

But "a party must stand for something," said Craig Axford, who ran for chair from his position as head of the party's Progressive Caucus, the party's liberal wing. Utah Democrats should have "a message that donors can invest in with pride, that candidates can run on with pride, that people can vote for with pride," said Axford.

But small cliques of one-issue Democrats, whether labor union members, pro-choicers or gay rights advocates, are hurting the party in Utah, others said. Democrats in Utah must "take their party back from special interests," said chairman candidate Mike Marty.

Holland will take a paid leave of absence from his labor union job and so won't take a salary from the state party.

"The winds of change are blowing in the West," said Holland, who in 2004 worked as a Rocky Mountain regional organizer in the John Kerry presidential campaign. "Democrats are winning statewide elections" in states surrounding Utah, Holland said. "And it's time to bring that home."

Holland said Utah's two GOP U.S. senators are "acting like lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry" instead of representing hardworking Utah families. "We must defeat Orrin Hatch (who faces re-election to his sixth six-year term) next year."

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com