Jim Matheson forced into primary election with Claudia Wright for Utah Democrat nomination

Published: Sunday, May 9 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Rep. Jim Matheson speaks to delegates during the Utah State Democratic Convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center on Saturday. Utah's only Democrat in Congress faces his first-ever primary runoff, against a progressive, grass-roots challenger, Claudia Wright.

T.j. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's only Democrat in Congress predicted he'd leave Saturday's state Democratic Party convention as the party's 2nd District nominee.

Instead, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, faces his first-ever primary runoff, against a progressive, grass-roots challenger, Claudia Wright.

While Matheson wasn't facing the anti-incumbent fervor that permeated the GOP gathering at the other side of the Salt Palace Convention Center, his stance of confidence before the vote softened into a slightly less assertive look into the future after delegate results were announced.

"I'm think it's time for a primary, and I always look forward to campaigning," Matheson said.

Second District Democratic delegates gave Matheson a 55 percent-45 percent edge over Wright, but he couldn't garner the 60 percent required to avoid a head-to-head challenge on June 22.

In Wright, Matheson will face a challenger who shares many of the same traditional Democratic values but who called health care reform her No. 1 priority in a speech to delegates. Matheson's failure to support federal Democratic health care reform bills both last fall and this spring angered many in the party and sparked a wave of anti-Matheson sentiment at statewide caucus meetings in March. Matheson, however, said the positions he's taken on other issues will bring him victory this summer.

"I will just run on my record," Matheson said. "I'm proud of what I've done. I have a good record of accomplishments and think most people in the 2nd District feel good about it as well."

Wright and her supporters, however, think those voters are ready for a new face in Utah's only federal-level Democratic seat.

"I think there's a national trend basically to get rid of politics as usual," she said between hugging supporters lining up to congratulate her.

One of those supporters, Joyce Spinelli of Ivins, said Wright won because voters "lost trust in 'old guard' politics" and are looking for someone they can believe in.

Wright, a first-time candidate, credited her long experience as a history teacher with giving her the skill to organize an effective grass-roots campaign that tapped into the dissatisfaction with Matheson.

Asked if she was surprised by the outcome of the vote, Wright answered simply, "No." Wright said she believes she'll beat Matheson in the primary by winning the votes of Democrats who see him as leaning too far right.

Her campaign manager, Michael Picardi, complained that the state party favored Matheson at a Democratic fundraising dinner Friday night and from the podium Saturday. "We were extremely disappointed," Picardi said.

Todd Taylor, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said the keynote speaker at the dinner and the convention, U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, "definitely had his own interests" in backing Matheson. Hoyer praised Matheson's support of some key Democratic issues and warned "as Democrats, we cannot afford to make a large tent a small tent."

The last time the Democrats had a primary in a congressional race was in 2002, when Donald Dunn faced off against Dave Thomas for the 1st District seat later won by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, according to Taylor.

"I always thought it was possible he would get through this without facing a primary," Taylor said, blaming Matheson's final vote against the Democratic health care plan for forcing a runoff.

Wright, 61, predicted last week she would make it to the primary. A retired schoolteacher of 31 years who still teaches some gender issues college courses, she describes herself as "lesbian, open about it" who lives with her partner in Holladay.

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