PARK CITY — Utah Democrats elected a new leader Saturday, choosing businessman Jeff Merchant as chairman over Daisy Thomas, a progressive grassroots activist who sought a second term.
"I think the Democrats in this state want to see change, and not just change in the Legislature, not just change in the governor's mansion but change within our party. We have a lot of things we have to work on internally," Merchant told reporters.
At the top of the list, he said, are addressing party infighting and financial issues that led to Thomas no longer being paid. Merchant has pledged not to take a paycheck until the party is out of debt.
"Those are the things that are causing people in our party to have problems staying in or even leaving. So I think we have to address the issues in front of us while at the same time being prepared to move forward. 2020 is a huge year," he said.
While Merchant greeted delegates as they left the Park City High School auditorium, Thomas slipped out a side door and initially declined to comment on the race, won by Merchant in the first round of balloting with nearly 77 percent of the vote.
"This is not the end. This party will unite and we will stand strong together as we focus on 2020 because we know we have seats to win across the state. Today was a very emotional and long day," she told reporters after wiping away tears.
Thomas said she wonders "about how divisive the party is going to be in the future if we're going to focus on negative campaigning and we're going to focus on not living and leading with our values," questioning the direction Utah Democrats are headed.
"What are we doing if we're not going to be the Democratic Party that actually champions economic, environmental and social justice? If we're not being led by people who believe in that firmly in their core, then we will never win, we will never make the gains we need to in this state," Thomas said.
But she said that can still happen at the grassroots level. A key backer of Vermont Sen. Bernie Saunders, a socialist Democrat, in the 2016 presidential race, Thomas said she will help the party "where I feel I can be of best use."
She said she doesn't feel "like I have necessarily lost because I know I stand firm for all of the people of Utah who deserve someone who is going to be an activist, who's going to fight for their issues."
Merchant, who rated himself midway between progressive and moderate on the political scale, said that's not what the chairman's race was about.
"I don't think that's the change we're talking about. I think the change we're talking about is the divisiveness and division we've had within the party," he said.
"We may not agree as Democrats on every single policy. In a lot of ways as Democrats, we value some of that chaos and some of that difference," Merchant said. "But at the end of the day, we all support the same values."
He said he looks forward to working with the new leader of the Utah Republican Party, Derek Brown, who was elected in May, and competing against the GOP leader at the ballot box.
The Utah GOP, the state's dominant political party, has been plagued by its own internal disputes and fundraising issues, although Brown reported to the State Central Committee Saturday that the party is out of debt after owing $100,000.
Democrats are facing more than $70,000 in bills, and are down to a single paid staff member, executive director Alex Cragun. Merchant said Cragun will stay on while a national search is conducted for the position.
Thomas told delegates that the party was in better shape than when she took office in 2017 and touted gains made by Democrats in last year's elections. She said in her speech that she'd "been in the trenches with you, and I have the scars to prove it."
Merchant told delegates that Democrats need "to work harder together."
In the days leading up to the state convention, Thomas' leadership was harshly criticized in social media posts, something that Merchant has said was not orchestrated by his campaign.
The contentious battle for the state Democratic Party's top post spilled over into some of the other races decided by more than 500 delegates at the convention, with some candidates naming their choice for chairman from the stage.
Becky Moss, who along with Robert Comstock was along a candidate to lead the Democratic Party, asked her supporters to vote for Merchant during her speech to delegates, while vice chairman candidate Deb Henry backed Thomas.
Nadia Mahallati won the vice chairwoman position over former state lawmaker Jay Seegmiller after two rounds of voting. Incumbent Michael Bryant was elected secretary and Shelia Srivastava was unopposed for another term as treasurer.
There was no opposition at the convention to a resolution adopted that called for the restoration of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah that were drastically reduced by President Donald Trump.
Another resolution on the "real and present danger" presented by climate change was also approved after a reference to one of the Democratic presidential candidates, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, was removed.
Kicking off the convention that started shortly after noon was Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, a former New Mexico Democratic Party chairwoman and one of the two first-ever Native Americans elected to Congress last year.
"I want to personally thank every single one of you for the work you're doing for Democrats here in Utah. Because it means a great deal to our country, whether you realize it or not," Haaland said, urging them to keep it up.
"It will pay off and it already has," she said.
Haaland, who said Utah Democrats did an "amazing job" in electing a Democrat to Congress in 2018, Rep. Ben McAdams, described how the party now holds the major offices in New Mexico.8 comments on this story
She received standing ovations at the beginning and end of her speech, and enthusiastic applause when she spoke of introducing a bill to protect national monuments, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah.
Haaland said "the fight is not over for Democrats," calling the 2020 president race, where some two dozen Democrats are vying to take on Trump, the most important election in a lifetime.
"Our presidential candidates must not be afraid to be bold and talk about the values that make us Democrats. May the best man or woman win," she said, asking the delegates to help that nominee "because our lives and our planet depend on it."