Former Utah Gov. Calvin Rampton once said, "A day without hearing from J.D. is like a quiet week in the country."
The legendary J.D. Williams, that rarest of breeds - a Democrat in Utah - is still making noise.His ideological diversity hasn't always pleased folks in either political party. Pertaining to his run for the U.S. Senate in 1968, critics in his own party said, "J.D. was too liberal for the Mormons and too Mormon for the Democrats." Williams now calls himself a "cultural Mormon."
Williams grew up in Salt Lake City, then got prestigious degrees from Stanford and Harvard universities before joining the University of Utah faculty. He spent 40 years teaching political science.
J.D., as he is affectionately known among students and colleagues, consistently electrified the classroom, and as director of the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics, he inspired scores of students to go into practical politics.
Still charismatic and eloquent in his 70s, Williams remains fiercely loyal to his favorite document, the U.S. Constitution.
"The continuing great loves of my life are three - Barbara Wright Williams, whom I have loved for 58 years; Thomas Jefferson; and James Madison."
He is sold on the two-party system, which "is as right as democracy itself." A British statement he often quotes is, "The British government would not be complete if the speaker of the House of Commons did not look down and see her majesty's government on his right and her majesty's loyal opposition on his left."
The American system needs two parties, he says, and Utah needs them even more, because Democrats are a tiny minority of 22 percent, while 44 percent call themselves Republicans.
No wonder Williams is pleased with the recent statement by Elder Marlin Jensen of the LDS First Quorum of the Seventy. In a published interview, Jensen expressed regret that the Republican Party is usually seen as "the church party." Any notion, he said, that "it is impossible to be a Democrat and a good Mormon is `wrongheaded' and should be `obliterated.' "
While Williams is not holding his breath, he hopes the Jensen statement will help to restore needed balance to Utah politics.
There has not been a Democratic majority in either house of the Utah Legislature in 20 years.
"It has been a long, long period out in the pastures for Democrats," he says. But he hopes that Democratic Party leaders will move toward the political center, modifying their positions on hot-button issues such as abortion and gay rights.
Although Democrats controlled the governorship for 20 years, Republicans now have "this extraordinary Mike Leavitt who can hardly do anything wrong."
Leavitt, says Williams, "is a class act . . . who has intensified the problem Democrats have had in getting viable candidates."
During the 1996 election campaigns, Williams co-chaired a candidate recruitment committee. Within 10 days of the filing deadline, they had approached 37 people to run for governor and still had no candidate.
According to Williams, Mike Zuhl, then Democratic state chairman, and Attorney General Jan Graham called Jim Bradley on a Sunday and implored him to run for governor.
Even though he had previously refused, Bradley graciously agreed to run so the party could have representation. "If there is no choice in an election," says Williams, "then power from the people is meaningless."
In 1968, Williams himself went after the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, opposing businessman Milton Weilenmann and attorney Phil Hanson. Williams lost narrowly in the state convention, Hanson lost in the primary, and then Weilenmann lost decisively to incumbent Wallace Bennett.
Williams candidly credits his own loss to his political inexperience. "I made every mistake in the book," he says.
A scheduling conflict prevented him from attending the Carbon County Democratic Convention, so he sent a representative, who failed to show up in Price. Later, at the state convention, he stood to greet Carbon County Democrats, but "not a single one of them would shake hands with me."
Williams has never regretted his run for the U.S. Senate. "There was no crying over spilled milk. I LOVED that experience."
In fact, he was thinking about it when he was first offered a U. faculty position. At the bottom of his acceptance letter, he asked if faculty members were allowed to run for elective office.
His wife, Barbara, "was absolutely infuriated that I had this hidden agenda, and I'll never forget taking a pair of scissors and cutting off that paragraph so the front page of the letter was shorter than the second page."
In 1962, Williams decided against running for Congress after the board of regents failed to promise him job security if he lost.
Then in 1968, he again approached the board of regents. This time, Chairman Don Holbrook and Williams together rewrote the regents' rules, affording U. faculty members the opportunity to run for office.
Even if he had won the nomination, Williams thinks he would have lost to Bennett. "You can only take that age contrast so far. I was 46 and the senator was 70 and very conservative, coupled with a nationwide conservative tide."
Williams ran for office one more time, in 1976, when he sought a seat in the State House of Representatives from Olympus Hills, "the most Republican district in Utah. It is so conservative you almost need a passport to cross Wasatch Boulevard."
He got only 37 percent of the vote in that one.
Williams concedes the fire in the belly is not gone. "If I were younger and had the money, I would have one campaign left in me. I would love to run against Orrin Hatch in 2000," says Williams, "but I shall be gathered to my reward in that period of time."
Even though Williams believes that "old professors never die, they simply wait for speaking invitations," he is currently writing his autobiography.
His working title? "A Liberal in Zion." If he's lucky, the book will help the dreaded "L" word acquire lost respectability, along with that old, formerly reliable oxymoron, "Mormon Democrat."