Utah Democrats' neighborhood caucuses 'surprisingly robust,' chairman says

Published: Tuesday, March 18 2014 11:43 p.m. MDT

Doug Owens, left, who is running for the 4th Congressional District seat, introduces himself to Dennis and Monica Ketcher at Eisenhower Junior High School in Taylorsville for the Democrat Caucus on Tuesday, March 18, 2014.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

TAYLORSVILLE — Megan Bishop jumped into Democratic Party politics with both feet Tuesday night.

The West Valley City woman attended her first caucus meeting and was elected as a precinct chairwoman.

"Since we're keeping the caucus system for now, I wanted to come out for the first time and get involved," Bishop said at a caucus meeting at Eisenhower Junior High School.

Barring a change, this was the last time all party candidates will have to go through the traditional caucus, delegate and convention process to get on the ballot.

The passage of SB54, a compromise between backers of the Count My Vote citizen initiative and state lawmakers, creates an alternative means for candidates to qualify for the primary election ballot beginning in 2016.

Candidates who run for federal or state offices — Congress, Utah Legislature, governor, attorney general, auditor and treasurer — would need to collect a set number of signatures from registered voters to get on the primary ballot.

The traditional route to the primary ballot, the caucus/delegate/convention process, will also remain an option.

While the numbers of people participating in the Democratic Party's neighborhood caucuses were down from 2012, Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said the meetings across the state were "surprisingly robust."

"I expected there to be a dramatic decline from the last time when all that Orrin Hatch money went into getting people out. I think it was down a little from last time but not significantly. It was a pretty good turnout," he said.

For Democrats, the dual track to the primary ballot is particularly challenging, given most candidates' limited resources. The cost of collecting some 28,000 signatures would be prohibitive for many candidates.

While the Count My Vote initiative was front of mind for some delegates, others like Frank Cordova III had intensely personal reasons for being part of Democratic party politics.

Cordova, of West Valley City, said participating in politics was practically inescapable in his family. His late father, a Latino community organizer, was active in the Democratic party for 45 years.

“He had me registering people to vote in Rose Park when I was 5 years old,” he said.

Cordova, who was elected a delegate, said he also took part in the neighborhood caucus to deepen his understanding of the upcoming changes under SB54.

“I’m trying to understand just what the changes mean,” he said.

Meanwhile, at a Democratic neighborhood caucus at Hillside Middle School in Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill spoke on the importance of community members getting involved in the election process.

"You're here because you care," said Gill, who announced Tuesday that he will seek a second term as district attorney. "You need to get out there and invigorate your neighbors that typically will not go out and vote. The heart of the Democratic party in the state of Utah is this county, and it depends on people like you."

Taylor Hayes, vice chairwoman of her Salt Lake precinct, said attending was "a simple thing that I can do to contribute more to my community. Policy affects all of us," she said. "If we only have a small minority of people electing those who affect our policy, then that policy isn't really working for the majority of us."

Mark McGowan, a volunteer at the meeting of some 200 people, said that although most caucus attendees have already decided who they will vote for, such meetings help other citizens make informed decisions about whom they elect to public offices.

"A lot of people are coming for the first time and they don't know," he said. "Participation is a must."

Dabakis said Democrats experience "a certain commanderie" when a group of like-minded people gather in one room. "I couldn't help but sit there and listen to what was being said and think, 'Can you imagine how this state would change for the better if all of these people were elected to the Legislature?'"

Lindsey Nielsen, regional field organizer for the Utah Democratic Party, told Democrats attending the meeting in Taylorsville that the party’s voter registration campaign had signed up 7,000 people as Democrats. The effort is working toward a goal of 20,000 new registrations by the November election, she said.

“We are working harder than ever to make sure our candidates are elected to the Legislature. Through voter registration, we will grow the number of Democrats elected to office,” she said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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