Salt Lake attorney Peter Billings announced Saturday he is running for state Democratic Party chairman and wasted no time criticizing the party's current leadership for wooing supporters of last year's failed tax initiatives.
"Our public approval and support have been shrinking," Billings said in a prepared statement delivered at the state Capitol. "We can reverse that trend, but we will not do so by forming alliances with the likes of Merrill Cook."In fact, Billings said he decided to seek the two-year post because of current state Democratic Party Chairman Randy Horiuchi's dealings with the former Republican turned independent on two new initiatives.
"It was wrong for the party to be hooked up with Merrill Cook," Billings said in an interview after the news conference. "That really bothered me. That was part of the reason I decided to run."
Billings' comments reflect the opinion of a number of Democratic leaders, including former Gov. Scott M. Matheson, who have condemned Horiuchi. Matheson and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, were on hand for Billing's announcement Saturday.
Horiuchi, who was not available for comment Saturday, has indicated he would run for a third term as party chairman if Billings was the chief candidate.
So far, only Marvin Davis, a Jesse Jackson delegate to the Democratic National Convention, has announced. South Salt Lake Mayor Jim Davis, a candidate Horiuchi said he would step aside for, took himself out of the race.
Cook, whose race for governor last year as an independent may have cost Democrat Ted Wilson the election, is trying to keep the tax limitation movement alive with the help of Horiuchi and Utah State AFL-CIO President Ed Mayne.
This unlikely trio, dubbed an "unholy alliance," have been trying to find common ground to support initiatives that would remove the sales tax from food and raise the state's minimum wage.
But conservatives behind last year's defeated tax initiatives and Democrats who vehemently opposed the measures are equally horrified at the thought of working together.
Initiatives should be used "only as a last resort" and only if they serve as a "party-building exercise," Billings said, adding that any short-term gain in party membership from associating with Cook would be offset by "long-term misery."
Billings also referred to opposition from the state AFL-CIO over a meeting he had with non-union Eastern Airlines reservation workers to explain how they are affected by that company's bankruptcy proceedings.
The union organization has prepared a brochure opposing Billings, but has yet to endorse another candidate for the party position. Billings repeated Saturday that he was only trying to help the laid-off workers.
"It was certainly not intended and was not an anti-union stand," he said. "I thought I was doing a good deed for people who were out of work and needed help."
In his prepared statement, Billings spoke of the need for the party to be a home for diverse groups and individuals including "union or non-union, labor or business."