I have never seen anything like the turnout we have tonight. I think people are much more concerned with their government. They want to make sure their voices are heard. —Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Milcreek
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SALT LAKE CITY — They flocked to school cafeterias, gymnasiums and neighborhood homes Tuesday evening in show of party force at caucus meetings, spreading the message that to be a Utah Democrat means you care about the issues like education, the economy and children.
While the biggest turnout to party caucus meetings in recent memory was largely attributed to a push by party leaders, churches and special interest groups, those attending also expressed an urgency to fight for more Democratic representation in a GOP-dominated state.
"I don't think this crowd needs any rallying," Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon told a packed collection of 27 precinct meetings at the State Capitol.
Would-be delegates and hopeful precinct chairs listened to candidates stump for office and then got down to the business of stumping for themselves in front of individual groups that would select precinct officers or delegates.
The delegates will go on to represent the party at upcoming nominating conventions at the county or state level next month to select who will represent the party in dozens of county, statewide and congressional races this year.
Paul Zuckerman introduced himself as chairman of Salt Lake precinct 41 and enthused over the number who crowded around the table, seated and standing.
"I haven't seen this many people show up before," he said, smiling. "I think this is where government happens." Attorney Angelina Tsu beat out Zuckerman to become chairwoman, but he was quickly nominated with acclamation to next in command.
Tsu said she had been to a caucus meeting while in law school, so Tuesday's event was her "official second."
Lisa Allcott, legislative chairwoman for state House District 24 — the host district for the more than two dozen precinct meetings at the Utah State Capitol — said turnout at the event was astonishing.
"It's absolutely unbelievable," she said. "I've been overwhelmed at how many people are here. There's not enough chairs, but people are taking it in stride."
The same crowded atmosphere caused a late-start to caucus meetings at Skyline High School, where one observer noted it was far different from 2010 — when the attendees easily fit into the corner of the room.
“Last time I was in this place and it was this crowded, it was in high school,” said Jeff Niermeyer, a first-time attendee who was elected precinct chairman for Mount Olympus 005, as well as a delegate.
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Milcreek, echoed Allcott's sentiment.
"I have never seen anything like the turnout we have tonight,” she said. “I think people are much more concerned with their government. They want to make sure their voices are heard.”
Arent attributed the much-increased participation to voter discontent with the Republican Party.
“The Republican Party has been taken over by the tea party,” she said, explaining she believed many moderate Republicans have more in common with Utah Democrats.
That belief, party faithful assert, is what likely drew out so many newcomers for the caucus meetings — voters disenfranchised with politics dominated by the ultra-conservative.
Tsutomu Johnson was among those first-timers who was part of a standing-room only crowd at Dillworth Elementary School in Salt Lake City. He said he hoped to get elected as a county delegate as a way to give back to the community — plus he has time now to get involved in the electoral process.
Beyond that, he said the redrawing of his congressional district bothered him — Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah is no longer his representative — and he's irritated at the dust-up over the Legislature's evisceration of Utah's sex education curriculum.
"It smacks of the Legislature not representing the entire political spectrum in our state," he said.
Jenny Asay said she was motivated to attend a caucus meeting after an 18-year hiatus — which ended because of a desire to get more involved and following the urging of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which strongly encouraged more participation at the neighborhood meetings.
"I am LDS and it was nice to be encouraged and there seemed to be more of a push than I remember," she said. "There's actually word of mouth going on in my neighborhood, which doesn't happen."
Asay said she isn't affiliated with either party, but added that while she was a registered Republican when she lived in California, she feels more at home with the Democrats in Utah.
"The minute I crossed into Utah, nothing about me changed, but I am categorized as more of a Democrat," she said.