Utah Democrats gathered Saturday to cheer on their 1998 candidates, criticize Republicans, listen to some songs and formally adopt what state delegates believe is a "winning" issue this year: Banning concealed weapons from schools and churches.
More than 1,000 delegates showed up at Skyline High School on Salt Lake County's east bench, even though there were no contested intra-party contests. By acclamation the delegates nominated Scott Leckman to run against Sen. Bob Bennett, Lily Eskelsen to challenge Rep. Merrill Cook and Steve Beierlein to take on Rep. Jim Hansen.Multi-county legislative candidates were also formally nominated in the first convention in recent memory that had no candidate balloting.
But there was a lot of talking, and a little disagreement when - at the convention's end - the remaining 200 delegates voted to include two gun-related amendments to the state platform.
"I think we have a winner of an issue here," said Davis County delegate Randall Edwards concerning his amendment that says Democrats believe concealed weapons have no place in "schools, churches and government buildings or on university campuses, except where permitted by appropriate authorities."
Several delegates spoke against the amendment. One, saying he belonged to a veteran and retired law enforcement associations, said: "Don't pit the Democratic Party against police and veterans - who fought (in wars) to protect the very rights" that ensure the free use of guns.
A separate amendment, also adopted, said Democrats favor state legislation aimed at keeping guns away from children in homes. When adults are away from home, guns must be secured in some manner, the amendment says. By implication, adults who don't keep guns away from children left alone would be liable.
That brought a warning from another delegate, who said parents that lose a child through a gun accident would only be harmed more in the tragedy if they were prosecuted or punished through such a law.
While the platform debate took half an hour or so, the real purpose of the convention was to showcase leading Democratic candidates - and praise some current and former officeholders.
Attorney General Jan Graham was cheered when she walked on stage, and praised for standing up to GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt and GOP legislative leaders. As reported in Saturday's Deseret News, Graham and Leavitt are sparring over his demand that Graham file a friend-of-the-court brief in a Vermont case involving a state same-sex marriage law.
Graham said Utahns should ask Leavitt why he is messing around with what he terms a moral law when "I would love his support on a real Utah lawsuit - fighting tobacco companies. I haven't had (that support) yet," she added.
It was Graham's convention task to praise former U.S. Sen. Frank Moss - who was defeated by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in his 1974 re-election bid. Moss, now 87, was praised for his "groundbreaking" legislation on consumer rights and the environment. It was Moss' bill that put the warning labels on cigarettes and banned cigarette advertising on television.
"He was 30 years ahead of his time" in fighting big tobacco, said state Democratic chairwoman Meg Holbrook, and "he is today 50 years ahead of the Republican-dominated Legislature." Holbrook and other Democrats condemned Republicans in the Legislature for raising the cigarette tax to get more revenue (now around $53 million a year) but only allocating $250,000 for anti-smoking campaigns for teenagers.
Leckman, a general surgeon who has committed considerable time to humanitarian tasks, said he is not a sacrificial lamb to Bennett's huge war chest and power of the incumbency.
Remember 1992, when former GOP President George Bush had a 90 percent approval rating (because of the gulf war)? No one thought a Democrat could beat Bush.
But Bill Clinton did.
"I decided to run against Bob Bennett the day I learned that Bennett" refused to support Hatch's bill that would tax the tobacco industry and use the money to pay for health insurance for poor children. "Bob Bennett would only pay attention to a kid issue if the kid owned a bank," said Leckman.
Beierlein said he would take back the 1st Congressional District seat held by Hansen, a man who has become entrenched, who believes in nothing. "I will serve with the total conviction of the heart," said Beierlein, who added he will now begin traveling the length and breadth of the large district in a van to talk to citizens.
Eskelsen said to be prepared for Cook and GOP leaders to criticize her for being a one-issue candidate. The teacher and former president of the Utah Education Association said she's dedicated her life to help kids, and this campaign will be about one issue: "How to make the future better for our boys and girls." By answering that question, all others - the environment, education, health care - will be taken care of, she said.
There is no Democratic candidate in the 3rd Congressional District this year - the first time in the state's history one of the major parties didn't field a congressional candidate.
But 3rd District Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, was slammed around a bit anyway. And an almost-Democratic candidate, composer and singer Kurt Bestor, gave a rousing speech to delegates and played some piano for the crowd.
Bestor drew applause and cheers when he said: "I'm a 40-year-old white male Mormon who lives in Utah County. Why?" When he became worried about the "Rush Limbaughism of Utah," Bestor said he sought some answers to basic political questions.
"Who wants to take care of those among us who can't take care of themselves? Who really believes in being good stewards of the land? Who believes that the value of the arts is not just for the rich? Who believes in the highest education for a child, regardless of race, religion or creed? What party would I believe in?
"I'm a Democrat, alive and well and living in Utah County," he said to the cheering crowd.
Whether it was happenstance or planned as part of a larger, general Democratic theme this year, for the first time in recent Democratic conventions the names of LDS Church leaders were mentioned in complimentary ways. Brigham Young was said to be one of the state's first and foremost Democrats. LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley and his first counselor, Thomas S. Monson, were reported to have praised Democrats as fine examples of political and family leaders.