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."
That may have been appreciated by many Democrats, Webb sad, "but at the same time, it alienated a lot of the more mainstream Utahns and probably made it harder to win their votes."
BYU political science professor Richard Davis, a former Utah County Democratic Party chairman who is also running to replace Dabakis, agreed that voters have been turned off.
"In order for the Democratic Party to win, most voters — and we know most are LDS voters — need to feel comfortable again that the Democratic Party expresses their values," said Davis, a columnist for the Deseret News.
And, he said, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as other religions, are not comfortable with the party's focus on same-sex marriage under Dabakis.
"It is not a position shared by most Utahns," Davis said. "It also confuses people. When they think of Democrats, they think of same-sex marriage when what they ought to be thinking of is Democrats are for education."
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said he and other Democrats need to find common ground on same-sex marriage. The party, he said, has a valuable role to play if it can bring Utahns together on the issue.
"We've got to find a way to afford individuals equal treatment under the law and also preserve and protect religious freedoms," the mayor said. "I don't know what that is right now."
McAdams said the state party needs to emphasize "issues that we stand for that reflect Utah values," including strengthening schools, improving air quality and looking out for the disadvantaged.
Utah voters, he said, are "tired of politics being us versus them" and want candidates willing to work across party lines.
"The more we get away from the partisan divide and focus on building bridges is the future of the Democratic Party," McAdams said.
In his 2012 race, McAdams said he won with 55 percent of the vote in Salt Lake County while President Barack Obama, a Democrat, received less than 40 percent of the vote.
"That's been imprinted on my mind," said McAdams, who briefly considered running for Matheson's 4th District seat. "The Democratic base got me 40 percent but did not get me a win. I've got to represent a broader coalition."
Matheson, who has won seven terms in the U.S. House by appealing to Republican and independent voters, said the circumstances of the Democratic Party in Utah haven't changed for a long time.
"Let's not kid ourselves," said Matheson, the son of the state's last Democratic governor, the late Scott Matheson, who served from 1977 to 1985. "Even when my dad was in office, it was a Republican state."
He said Democrats have good candidates on the ballot this year, including Doug Owens, son of late former Utah Rep. Wayne Owens, a Democrat who won his last election in 1990.
But Utah Democrats have a hard time even getting their foot in the door with voters, Matheson said. He had to fight challenges from the progressive wing of his own party over the years, as well as from the right.
"I just hope the electorate gives them a fair shake," Matheson said. "There's no magic formula here that's going to turn things around for the Utah Democratic Party. There's no secret that's going to make it happen."
Corroon, who was soundly defeated by GOP Gov. Gary Herbert in 2010 despite a hard-fought and well-financed race, said he now knows what it takes to appeal to voters statewide.
"I learned it ain't easy being a Democrat in Utah," said Corroon, a real-estate developer.
"What I realized is the citizens of Utah generally support the same issues that Democrats support and are pushing. For whatever reason, that message hasn't necessarily been properly delivered or received well."
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