Will Utah Democrats' focus shift to 'bread-and-butter' issues?

Published: Sunday, April 6 2014 11:45 a.m. MDT

Already hard-hit by the decision of the state's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, not to seek re-election, the Utah Democratic Party also is looking for a new chairman — and a new direction.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Already hard-hit by the decision of the state's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, not to seek re-election, the Utah Democratic Party also is looking for a new chairman — and a new direction.

"Utahns still aren't electing Democrats, and we're still not getting our message out there the best we can," said Peter Corroon, a former Salt Lake County mayor and candidate for governor who's now running for party chairman.

Corroon said what the party needs is the discipline to "stick to the bread-and-butter issues that affect all Utahns, like our education system" to appeal to voters throughout the state.

But the often controversial leader of the Democrats for the past three years, state Sen. Jim Dabakis, took a very different approach. Dabakis stepped down late last month for undisclosed medical reasons.

Dabakis, who is running again for his Salt Lake-area Senate seat, said he's left the state party with a bigger bank account, bigger staff and bigger presence thanks to his willingness to speak out.

Some Utahns expect Democrats to stay quiet as the longtime minority party, he said, rather than continually confronting the GOP majority on everything from education funding to environmental protections to same-sex marriage.

"We tried that for 30 years, and it just didn't seem to be working that well because it was hard for rank-and-file Democrats to see what the difference between Republicans and Democrats was," Dabakis said.

He said his message wasn't aimed at converting Republicans.

"I wasn't talking to them. I was talking to the Democrats," he said, on many issues, not just same-sex marriage.

"I never thought of myself as the state party chair of gays," Dabakis said, promising to be even more outspoken as a state senator now that he's no longer party chairman.

"There were a few times when I bit my lip, when I would have gotten more liberal," he said, recalling a meeting early on in his tenure where a Carbon County Democrat held up a piece of coal as a warning not to be too pro-environment.

Political consultant LaVarr Webb, a Republican who writes a column for the Deseret News, said Dabakis did not help a party that has struggled for years. Democrats have not held a statewide office or a majority in the Legislature for decades.

"I don't think he got good results," Webb said. "I think the party is in as bad as shape as it's been in many years with the likely loss of the 4th District with Matheson's retirement."

He said there was a disconnect between Dabakis' efforts to bring Mormons into the party to make it more acceptable for Utahns to vote Democrat while at the same time espousing causes viewed as liberal.

"While he attempted to moderate the party and bring more mainstream candidates into it, the way he operated at the Legislature and so forth, he didn't really represent a more moderate view himself," Webb said.

Especially when it came to same-sex marriage, an issue that came to the forefront of Utah politics when a federal judge struck down the state's constitutional ban last December, briefly allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed.

Dabakis, the only openly gay member of the Legislature, wed his longtime partner in a very public ceremony presided over by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and helped rally support for fighting Amendment 3.

"Jim seemed to almost want to rub it in — in Republican faces, in establishment faces. So I do think that was a problem," Webb said. "He was just so visible and so vocal, he came across as being really quite radical."

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