SALT LAKE CITY — There were sequins and smiles, cheers and applause and a whole lot of enthusiasm at the Utah Democratic Party's Legislative gala Saturday — its biggest to date.
"This is the largest fundraising event in the history of the Utah Democratic Party," party chairman and state Sen. Jim Dabakis announced to the attendees at the Marriott at City Creek.
The hundreds of attendees dined and mingled and donated. They applauded those elected officials who will represent the party at the Legislature and heard from keynote speaker, Sacramento Mayor and former NBA athlete, Kevin Johnson.
"I believe the support and energy we see in this room today… (means) there is a strong and vibrant future for the Utah Democrats," Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said.
He said that despite predictions for a rough year in 2012, the party moved forward with a great year and plans for another in 2013. The focus at this point is the Legislative session beginning Monday, where Democratic leaders said they will make education their priority.
"We need to make sure that we increase the amount that we're giving to ensure education," Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, said. "We can't shortchange it anymore. If we're one of the best managed states in the nation why are we number 49 when it comes to our children's education?"
He said the Democrats have a number of education-focused bills in the works and that they will hope to get more money committed to education than is currently allotted in the governor's budget. He said it's a necessary investment to reach future goals, such as the Prosperity 2020 initiative that seeks to have 66 percent of Utah adults holding some form of post-secondary degree or certificate by the year 2020.
"I think the economy in the state of Utah is growing, I think that as we look at our prospects in the future, that our state is poised to do well," Davis said. "What we need to do, then, and this will be the Democrats move forward, is to make sure we address the needs of our people. I think we have a great business climate in the state of Utah, but what we need to do is make sure that the working family gets what they need and that children receive the education and educational opportunities that we should be affording them."
This was echoed by House Minority Leader, Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake, who said that Democrats also want to focus on healthy communities by targeting environmental health and access to healthcare as well as safety in the state's schools and communities. Small businesses, built and operated locally, are also a priority, but she said education is crucial in Utah's future.
"The Utah House Democrats are working on making sure that Utah stays competitive," she said. "And by doing that we're focusing on different areas like education, because we look at education as providing opportunities for all of our children across the state … to have an opportunity at an education so that they can be self-sustaining and help take our communities on into the future with their creativity and handwork."
Dabakis said this session, and year, will be important as Utah Democrats seek to inform Utahns about their identity and personality, which he said is markedly different than the polarized "catastrophe" in Washington, D.C. He said both parties in the nation's capitol are "completely out of touch" with the American people and are paralyzing the country. In Utah, he said, it's different.
"Utah Democrats are moderate, they're common sense, they're not ideological and they want to solve problems," Dabakis said. "We, as Utah Democrats, are the opposite of Washington and we are the opposite of the ideologues who have taken over the Republican party. We're just there to solve problems for the people of Utah."
Davis pointed to other differences between Utah and Washington. Though Democrats represent a minority in Utah's Legislature, he said the five Democratic state senators represent one-third of the state population and are given consideration by the state's Republicans.
"Fortunately in the state of Utah, unlike the federal government, we in the Legislature, even on our side of the aisle, have not been totally shut out of the entire discussion," he said.
Dabakis said it's time for a change, calling the Republicans who have carried a majority in the state for more than 27 years "visionless." He estimated they would raise between $300,000 and $400,000 in funds by night's end and would have begun "to set a vision for where the state needs to go in education, in air pollution, in public lands."
The Legislature, what Seelig called the "45-day marathon," would wait for them come Monday. Saturday night was about keeping to the theme of 'Believe' and looking forward.
"Democrats have a vision for the future of Utah… education, jobs, working men and women and families," Davis said. "We believe in Utah. We believe in our future."