SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's newly elected Democratic Party chairman says the party's "big tent" welcomes members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"I want to speak directly to the LDS people in our state," Jim Dabakis said Saturday after being nominated for state party chairman. "I want you LDS people to participate in our party. We want your spirit, we want your contributions and we want to earn your votes. I will do whatever I can as chair to see that our big tent is comfortable to LDS people because it's the right thing to do."
Dabakis was elected as the new party chairman by delegates during the Utah Democratic Party's 2011 Organizing Convention attended by more than 1,000 party faithful. He replaces retiring three-term party chairman Wayne Holland.
Dabakis, one of the co-founders of Equality Utah and The Utah Pride Center, is the first openly gay leader of a political party in Utah.
"This is a historic moment," Dabakis said jokingly with a long pause after he was nominated. "Utah may elect its first out Greek-American party chair."
On a more serious note, he said being openly gay was never an issue during his campaigning.
"It shows how fair minded and decent people are," Dubakis said. "Utahns are basically fair, honest, decent people."
He said Democrats believe in the inclusion of all people, even if they have some differing opinions, including Utah Mormons who primarily vote Republican.
He called voters who practice the Mormon faith a "tremendous resource" and believes they want the chance to be part of the "normal, moderate, reasonable party that we are" in light of what's been happening in the Republican party.
"Our state is not the Republican Party. People are looking for real life answers to problems," he said. "I believe to my core, Democrats can win in Utah. I believe that we can win, and I believe that we will win. Our party is and must be the party of the big tent."
The Utah GOP controls both houses of the state Legislature, hold all statewide offices and two of the three congressional seats.
Party delegates noted that Dabakis has been a successful businessman, radio talk show host and involved Utah politics for 30 years.
"He will bring energy," said Tim Chambless, with the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. "He'll bring a greater connection with the business community."
Utah's lone Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson called Dubakis an "excellent communicator."
"Dabakis is the right person, in the right palace at the right time for this party," Matheson said in nominating him. "He is exactly what the Utah Democratic Party needs for this next election."
Dabakis had to wait a little longer than expected for his victory. The machine used for counting ballots broke and they had to be tabulated by hand. The end of the convention came more than two hours after it was originally scheduled to end.
Also elected as party leaders Saturday: Jim Judd as vice chairman; Paul Pugmire was voted in as the party's secretary; and Rob Miller was elected the party's treasurer.
There was a special election for Democrats in state House District 30 to replace Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake, who resigned earlier this month because she purchased a home outside the legislative district she has represented for 13 years. Brian Doughty won that seat over six other candidates.
Both Biskupski and Holland were given standing ovations as Democrats said goodbye to each and thanked them for their service.
Tim DeChristopher, who faces possible federal prison time when he's scheduled to be sentenced in less than two weeks, garnered bigger applause than some of the candidates when he nominated secretary candidate Bob Henline. DeChristopher was convicted disrupting a federal oil and gas lease auction in 2008 by making bids.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie gave a spirited keynote address, rallying Democrats for both local and national elections.
"Diversity is going to define us, not divide us," he said. "We are going on the offense, Utah Democrats and Democrats across the nation, and they're going on the offense starting today."