Democrats competing for Senate seat that may not carry much influence

Published: Monday, Nov. 26 2012 7:45 p.m. MST

Representative Brian Doughty addresses his fellow representatives after being sworn in by Speaker of the House Representative Rebecca Lockhart in the House of Representatives Chamber at the Utah state capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 20, 2011. Doughty is running for the state Senate seat being vacated by Salt Lake County Mayor-elect Ben McAdams

Mike Terry, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Some of Utah's most prominent Democrats are competing for the state Senate seat being vacated by Salt Lake County Mayor-elect Ben McAdams. But whoever is chosen isn't expected to have much influence in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

"I think that it's unlikely, frankly, that the person is going to have any big impact simply because the Democrats are so few in number," University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said. "The Republicans can do what they want."

Democratic delegates in Senate District 2 will vote Saturday on a replacement for McAdams from a list of candidates that includes outgoing Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, Utah State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis and former Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson.

The winner of the delegate election will be one of just five Democrats in the 29-member Senate when the 2013 Legislature begins meeting in January. The four minority leadership positions for the upcoming session were chosen earlier this month.

Even so, there's plenty of competition for the seat. 

By Monday's 5 p.m. filing deadline, there were seven candidates running. Besides Corroon, Dabakis and Wilson, the candidates are outgoing Rep. Brian Doughty, community activist Robert Comstock, attorney Will Carlson and John Wakins.

A debate is scheduled for 7:00-8:30 p.m. today at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, an event sponsored by the ABU Education Fund. The fund is an affiliate of the Alliance for a Better UTAH, a progressive good-government group.

Burbank said Democrats are going to have a tough time being heard in the Legislature, especially after losing two seats in the Senate largely due to last year's redistricting. Legislative boundaries were shifted away from the party's Salt Lake stronghold to accommodate growth in conservative Utah County.

"The question that they have to answer really is: Do they play the role of the very vocal opposition?" Burbank said. "One problem with doing that is while it may help you win some votes over time, it tends to alienate" the majority in the Legislature.

"That's one of the risks," he said. "If you alienate the members of the state Legislature, particularly when Republicans have such an overwhelming majority, there's very little limit to what they can do."

Senate President-elect Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he hopes that whoever is selected to represent District 2 is willing to work with the GOP majority.

"We don't as a majority party go out of our way to thump our chest on issues. That's not a spirit for cooperation," Niederhauser said. "Let's work together. Let's not be divisive."

The Senate leader said it doesn't matter how many Democrats are in the minority.

"Five or seven really doesn't make a lot of difference," he said. "We'll still reach out to them as we have done in the past."

Senate Minority Leader-elect Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, said he's been treated fairly by the GOP throughout his 26 years in the Legislature as a member of the minority party, including 12 years in the House.

"We may not have the votes at the end of the day to pass our agenda, but we have our voice," Davis said. "Would we like to be in charge? Absolutely. … Sometimes you have to swallow hard and just take a little bit of change."

Dabakis said that no longer may be enough for Utah Democrats. He said he's running for the seat to help spread the party's message, and he doesn't plan to step down as the state Democratic chairman if elected.

"We need to be able to speak not just to the Republicans, but to the whole state," Dabakis said. "We've had 27 years of not rocking the boat. I'm not for tipping over the boat, but it's OK to stand up and speak and kind of tell the truth."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

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