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Democrats a better fit for LDS Utahns, state party leader tells students

November 13th, 2011 Posted in Opinion

Story and photo by Heidi Hansen

LOGAN—While the Utah Republican Party is busy running campaigns for Senate and Congress, Utah Democrats are running a simpler campaign: they just want members. And then maybe some of those members can run for office and maybe after a couple of tries (and a cultural revolution), they might win.

This was the basic game plan laid out by Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis during a recent visit to Utah State. It was billed as a “late lunch” with college Democrats to discuss the party’s future in Utah and what role students can play in it.

“The Democratic Party is full of diversity—we’re like a big, open tent. We’ll take everyone,” Dabakis said. “But we’ve forgotten to reach out to LDS people. We need to tell them, ‘Hey, we want your energy and enthusiasm and guess what? we line up with your ideals.’”

About 71 percent of Utah residents are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Dabakis said, but only 9 percent of church members self-identify as Democrats.

“We’ve got to make the case that the Democratic Party aligns better with LDS values,” Dabakis said. “We actually care about people, we have compassion, we think of people as real people—not as customers for big banks.”

Dabakis said that, as the Tea Party in Utah continues to pull the Republican Party to more extreme positions on education and other social services, Utahns will look elsewhere to find a party that better represents their values.

“We’ve got to show Utahns that Democrats are the kind of people that can solve all kinds of problems,” he said. “We are not ideologues. With the Tea Party, ideology trumps everything. We forget ideology, and in a common sense way, solve problems.”

Aaron Holladay, one of those rare Mormon Democrats, said he was impressed with Dabakis.

“He addresses the fundamental question [of] how to interact with LDS members,” said Holladay, an international relations student. “I can’t figure out why they [LDS members] are so disenchanted with Democrats. I think Democratic values line up better with LDS values—that’s why I got involved.”

But Justin Hinh, president of USU’s College Libertarians, said that’s not necessarily the case. Hinh, who attends political events for fun, says each side demonizes the other for having a different approach.

“But I think for all parties, their approach is to help others—both Democrats and Republicans believe their system helps the most people,” Hinh said. “But I think my system helps better. So to say Republicans and Libertarians don’t care about people like Democrats do, that’s not true.”

For Dabakis, however, it’s more than just caring about people that makes his party the right choice. “Democrats have the good stuff,” he said, explaining that Utah Democrats are concerned with education, health care and open and honest government.

Which was Dabakis’s second order of business: convincing college students to run for public office.

“We need you,” he said. “It’s better to start at 21 and lose two or three times that to start at 60 and lose two or three times.

“And don’t give me this, ‘I’m not smart enough, I’m not qualified enough,’” Dabakis said. “Look at our Legislature and you will be surprised just how smart and how qualified you really are.”

Jason Williams, of Cache Valley radio station KVNU’s For the People radio show, attended the event and said he was an example “that the odds can be beaten: I’m a progressive Democrat on talk radio in Utah.”

Dabakis lamented the small number of Democrats currently serving in the Utah Legislature, most of whom hail from Salt Lake County. “If all the Democrats in the Legislature went to Wendover during the session, it would still go on,” he said.

During the controversial recent special session called to redraw legislative districts—which is required by law every 10 years after the U.S. Census—Utah Democrats certainly wanted to go to Wendover, Dabakis said.

After months of what a “dog and pony show,” where legislators sought public input and purchased software to allow Utah residents to go online and draw their own maps for new legislative districts, Dabakis said the October special session was closed to the public and all that research was thrown out the window.

But Utah Democrats didn’t head off to Wendover. “We were determined to expose the Republicans for what they were doing,” he said. “We were going to make them face up to the fact that they weren’t being honest to the state.”

The resulting map splits Utah into four legislative districts, with the largest encompassing Salt Lake City and St. George. The new boundaries will make it more difficult for Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, to get re-elected.

“There’s no reason to have district like that,” Dabakis said. “Unless a computer went through and said that this is the map that can beat Matheson.

“In the end, not one Utahn got to see or speak on that map before they passed it, and I’m telling Utahns that it’s not right.”

Heather McGee, a University of Utah student and vice president of the Utah Federation of College Democrats, said Utah is lucky to have Dabakis as such a vocal supporter of more open redistricting. “He’s not afraid to get in people’s faces and draw up energy,” she said.

For those not running for office, smaller actions—like writing letters to lawmakers—can also be an effective way to get involved.

“These legislators think they are important,” Dabakis said, “but they don’t always get asked things, people aren’t always talking to them. So send them a letter … be specific and you’ll be surprised at the impact it can have.”

USU College Democrats President Laura Anderson said she wished Dabakis had focused more on how students can get involved, because students aren’t all going to rush out and run for office.

“We wanted to illustrate the importance of college students being involved in the local process,” Anderson said. “USU students need to know about state government, what happens there affects here through funding.

“He [Dabakis] did his job. He gave the party talking points,” Anderson said, “but I want to focus on how simple it is for students to send one email, to know issues and get involved.”

USU College Democrats Vice President Anna Harris agreed, saying the group’s focus this year is trying to get everyone involved. “Let’s face it, the college student voter turnout is the most depressing thing ever,” she said.

But if getting people involved was the goal of Dabakis’s appearance, it worked. Around 50 students from across the state gathered in USU’s Biology/Natural resource building to listen.

“This was probably the biggest campus Democratic event they’ve put on,” said law and constitutional studies student Peter Faines. “The last one I went to had like three people, so the turn-out here is huge.”

Attracting new Democrats may still be a dream, but it’s looking more attainable to Dabakis.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Dabakis said. “But I think Republicans are getting too creepy for LDS folks.”


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