SALT LAKE CITY — Newly elected Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis last week became the first openly gay person to lead a state party in Utah, and he's got a tough road ahead.
But that has mainly to do with the fact that Republicans control both houses of the Legislature, hold all statewide offices and about 60 percent of the state's population is Mormon, a reliable GOP constituency. In fact, Dabakis, with his typical good cheer, said the only Democratic party delegate who raised concerns about his sexuality was another gay man.
"He said he was worried that if he told people he was gay, they would know he was a Democrat," Dabakis said in an interview with The Associated Press. "That's what really scared him."
Dabakis has a boundless optimism practically required of Utah Democrats, and as co-founder of Equality Utah and the Utah Pride Center he's no stranger to challenges in a deeply conservative state.
He's already talking about the possibility of multiple upsets in the 2012 elections and the potential to lure some of the state's largest voting bloc — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — to the blue side of the ballot because of what he sees as an increasingly conservative ideology in the Republican Party.
"We appreciate diversity ... there's an opportunity for us to say to independent voters and disenfranchised Republicans to come to the party of common sense," Dabakis said.
But winning the LDS church vote — a huge coup if he can achieve it — won't be easy. More than 80 percent of the state's lawmakers are Mormon, who have historically and overwhelmingly voted Republican.
So it remains to be seen how much Dabakis's openness about his sexuality will hurt or help his goal, given the church's stance on gay issues. The church supported the 2008 California ballot initiative that banned gay marriage.
Gay rights issues are have always been important to Dabakis, who has been a strong supporter of non-discrimination ordinances passed by almost a dozen cities. But he understands Mormons, having converted to the faith as a teenager because he wanted to play basketball and most LDS ward houses have courts and organized leagues, he said. The church later sent him on a mission to San Francisco at the age of 19 and he attended Brigham Young University before coming out at the age of 23.
But as party chairman, Dabakis, now 58, said his energy will be funneled into building the party, not advancing his personal or social agenda.
A key to the party's success is attracting moderate voters who simply don't care about social issues, he said, adding that his election demonstrates that a person's sexuality is no longer a defining factor in Utah politics. He may be the first openly gay candidate to lead a state party, but it's certainly not a first in Utah Democratic politics.
Multiple gay legislators have been elected to office, and a more liberal faction of the party recruited Claudia Wright, a lesbian, to challenge U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, which forced a 2010 primary. Although she lost, her sexuality wasn't a major factor in the race, even among Mormons.
Dabakis says Mormons have been "stereotyped badly" on many issues, including gay rights and immigration. The current hyper-conservative shift among Republicans, however, gives Democrats a chance to attract Mormon voters who don't want hard-line stances on social issues.
"They are not dogmatic, they're not rigid. They're much more open-minded than they're given credit for," Dabakis said.
Democratic lawmakers who represent areas where the majority of voters are registered Republicans and Mormon echoed their new chairman's sentiments.
State Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Holladay, said her district leans Republican and many voters are against gay marriage and aren't hugely supportive of gay rights. But she doubted any of her constituents would care about Dabakis' sexuality.
"He's a successful businessman who cares about economic development, and he wants to reach out and include people who have a variety of views," Morgan said.
Another reason voters won't care is because, well, he's not a Republican, said Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum.
"Those who know about the chairman are the people who elected him," Ruzicka said. "He's in the right party for his lifestyle choice, and it won't matter as long as he doesn't become a Republican."
Bryan Fischer, of the Mississippi-based American Family Association, said Dabakis' election "is further confirmation that the battle to defend natural marriage is over in the Democratic Party."
But Dubakis' success is encouraging to gay rights activists "because it happened in a conservative stronghold," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, of the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign.
Alex Slater, a Democratic political consultant with SKDKnickerbocker in Washington, D.C., said it indicates that voters aren't going to be swayed by the same divisive talking points.
"The social issues that have been exploited by Republicans, often in a dishonest way, are no longer very relevant," Slater said.