Utah Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell says not to be too quick to condemn the state Democratic Party for not finding a candidate this year in the 3rd Congressional District.

Howell says the vacant race may - in fact, should - prove a wake-up call to 3rd District residents and the state as a whole."We have one-party rule in Utah," says Howell. And not giving voters even the chance to cast a ballot for a minority Democrat may open some people's eyes to the problems of one-party rule.

But Howell, D-Granite, known for his outspoken nature, doesn't stop there.

He adds two rather remarkable statements.

First, Democratic leaders in the Legislature seriously considered in 1996 - and will consider again in the year 2000 - the possibility of running no Democratic legislative candidates at all. None. Zippo.

The point, again, is to make Utahns wake up to what local political life would be like with no alternative voice, no alternative power, to the majority Republicans.

Second, the Democratic Party's request of LDS Church leaders that they make a general statement this year encouraging citizen participation in politics - as voters, volunteers and candidates - has backfired.

The church's statement earlier this year encouraging church members to get involved in politics has been used by local GOP leaders - many of whom are also local lay LDS Church leaders - to "reinforce the belief" that to be a good Mormon you must also be a Republican, says Howell.

"We (Democratic Party leaders) asked the church to make a statement. But it backfired. I have to admit that now," Howell said this week. GOP ranks are swelling like never before, says Howell, and Democratic Mormons are facing a new round of questioning by their neighbors and friends.

Howell, a faithful member of the LDS Church himself, said the unfortunate result for Democrats isn't the fault of the church, which went out of its way to be nonpartisan.

In the Jan. 15 statement, the church's First Presidency specifically encourages members to become active in political, gov-ern-men-tal and community affairs and get involved in the political party of their choice to pick wise, good and honest leaders. The church does not support any political party or candidate, and church leaders asked that no candidate imply that their candidacy is endorsed by the church.

The Republican and Democratic parties both went on recruiting drives this year hoping to take advantage of the church's statement to get more people involved.

But, says Howell, Republicans "exploited" the church's statement. Anecdotal evidence tells him that a number of Democratic candidates, who are also Mormons, are being questioned by fellow church members not only on political grounds (certainly acceptable if they're seeking election) but on religious grounds as well.

"We've had (state) Senate candidates tell us that members of their (church) wards are asking them how can they be a Democrat and a loyal church member," says Howell.

Right now, a discouraged Howell says he fears that "the best Democratic field" ever assembled to run for the state Senate this year could be washed aside by the Republican/religious fervor.

And if Democrats don't make "significant" gains in the Utah House and Senate this election, Howell predicts some startling actions.

"I think you'll see a number" of incumbent Democratic legislators resign in protest.

And in the 2000 elections Democrats might not encourage any legislative candidates to run, Howell says.

"The Republicans give us no opportunities" at all in the 75-member House, the 29-member Senate, he said. Currently, there are only 20 Democrats in the House and nine Democratic senators. Unlike Congress, where one senator and a one-third block in the House can sometimes halt action on a bill, in the Utah Legislature even motions that take two-thirds vote can fly through the House and Senate because Democrats don't have enough numbers to stop them.

The GOP leadership, especially in the Senate, "crush us at every turn," says Howell - Republicans vote down Democratic-sponsored bills even while saying privately that they may agree with what the Democrats are trying.

Whether Democratic leaders would really keep Democratic legislative candidates from running in 2000 is questionable. Some Democratic senators, like Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, and Eddie Mayne, D-West Valley, are in the body partly because their employers want them there. Dmitrich is a government affairs officer for a Carbon County coal mine; Mayne is president of the state AFL-CIO.

I doubt they'd resign or not seek re-election just to make a point about low Democratic numbers in the Senate.

But Howell maintains the "No Democrats" alternative is viable.

"The reality is we live in a one-party state. Maybe it's time to have no Democrats in the Legislature. Then let citizens see how they like that."