Braying To The Choir | Cover Story | Salt Lake City

‘The Sound of Silence.’ It could be the theme song of the Utah Democratic Party.

When Republicans, such as U.S. Reps. Chris Stewart or Burgess Owens, paint the Dems as “socialists,” or smack them with other derogatory labels, there often is no response or pushback—just a very disturbing quiet.

There is no one like Jim Dabakis (the now-retired state senator from Salt Lake City) or Randy Horiuchi (the late Salt Lake County Councilman) to blast back at the GOP as cheap-shot artists whose talent for name-calling often seems to dwarf their other skills. And so, the effective Republican bumper-sticker sloganeering continues to eat its way through the Utah body politic.

For decades, the Utah Democratic Party has found itself under the knee of the state’s GOP supermajority. It faces challenges in fundraising and messaging, particularly in rural Utah. If that weren’t enough, the Democrats have been busy fighting among themselves for control of a party that controls very little.

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“Over the last several months, and honestly over the last two years, I’ve seen the party pulled apart by issue after issue,” said Jeff Merchant upon his election as party chairman in June 2019. “My hope is that we can address those issues and start talking about bringing the party together.”

Democrats will have a louder voice going forward, said Joshua Rush, the Utah Democratic Party’s newly minted communications director, who becomes the third member of the small, three-person staff. “There is an incredible volume of stuff we have to respond to,” he said.

That “stuff” might include like when Owens insisted on Fox News recently that Democrats are led by “narcissists and sociopaths.”

The Issues Matter
The times they are a-changin’—at least that’s what Utah Democrats are banking on as demographics slowly shift to younger voters and new residents who may be more progressive than the majority of voters now in the Beehive State. Parts of the West are slowly turning blue. With the election of Democrat Joe Biden as president and a national Republican Party in convulsions, there may be a crack in the door that Utah Democrats could squeeze through.

Nationally, the Republicans seem to be out of ideas, said Matthew Burbank, professor of political science at the University of Utah. “All they want to do is to keep the government from doing anything. All the new policy ideas are coming from the Democrats,” he said. “But the Democratic Party of Utah has not been tremendously effective. And it’s not clear what they could do to improve their situation.”

Since the time of Ronald Reagan, Republicans have labeled Democrats big spenders, abortionists, gay-loving, gun-hating demons. Now, they’ve deployed the “socialist” boogeyman in reference to Democratic proposals on such things as health care, education and a broad definition of “infrastructure.”

But Merchant said people can see Democrats in Washington, D.C., are trying to get things done. “It’s certainly a good time to fundraise and get volunteers, and candidates are recognizing they need to step up,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges facing Utah Democrats is that their Republicans counterparts have become synonymous with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some 60 percent of Utahns are Mormon. Moreover, 86 percent of the Utah Legislature identifies as LDS. Democrats hold just six of 29 Senate seats and only 17 of 75 seats in the House. And all six of Utah’s congressional offices are held by Mormon Republicans.

But that can change, Merchant said. “More and more, Republicans will feel comfortable voting for Democrats when they can’t wait any longer for affordable education and proper health care.”

When Democrat Ben McAdams won the election for the 4th District congressional seat in 2018, he ran campaign ads that said he would not vote with Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House who had been repeatedly castigated as satanic by Republicans as well as right-wing TV and radio. McAdams won by a slim margin over Republican incumbent Mia Love.

In Washington, D.C., McAdams proved to be moderate and worked across party lines. Nonetheless, in 2020, he lost to Republican political newcomer Burgess Owens who, among other things, aligned himself with QAnon.

“Burgess Owens was not a good candidate,” Burbank said, “Owens’ message was confused but he was backed by a lot of out-of-state money. Even a real poor candidate can beat a good Democratic candidate in Utah.”

Can Utah Move Beyond Gerrymandering?
McAdams’ loss can be attributed, in part, to gerrymandering. The 4th District includes portions of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, as well as parts of Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties that are dominated by conservative politics.

For decades, Utah Republicans have shamelessly gerrymandered voting districts to ensure that it is almost impossible for Democrats to win a congressional race, even in Salt Lake County—the Democratic stronghold that has been sliced up like a pie.

However, for the first time, the new Utah Independent Redistricting Commission is at work to make boundaries more fair in the wake of Proposition 4, which was passed by voters in 2018.

Still, Republicans in the Utah Legislature will have the final say as to whether to adopt the commission’s voting-map recommendations or to continue with their gerrymandering.

“I don’t hold out much hope that the Republicans will do what’s right,” Merchant said of new voting districts. “If they did do what’s right, it would be significant for Democrats.”

Some say the way forward for Utah Dems is targeting one vulnerable seat at a time. Others believe sowing grass roots at the county level throughout Utah as the way to build-out. But that takes money, and typically, Republicans see much more of the greenbacks some call “the mother’s milk of politics.”

Nonetheless, 2020 was a good year for Dems’ fundraising because many people disliked Donald Trump. Those funds are critical for building county parties outside of the Wasatch Front—areas that have gone Republican for decades.

In order to broaden the party’s reach, Democrats need to engage with voters who see that two or three wedge issues—abortion, gun restrictions and gay marriage—keep many other things from getting done. “We will see Biden Republicans who want to move forward on issues we all should be agreeing on, like infrastructure,” Merchant said.

Mudslinging Within
Although members of the state Democratic Party put forth a positive attitude, all has not been rosy within the organization. That was pointed up again two months ago when Merchant issued a statement—an apology—on a sexual harassment imbroglio from 2017.

It was unusual the Dems would again bring up a long-past and painful episode that was accompanied by a lot of bad publicity. Oddly, it came on the heels of a similar Republican sexual harassment controversy. To the casual observer, it could appear as though Democrats, for once, didn’t want the Republicans to hog the spotlight.

Still the chairman said he believed the statement was necessary because the party had formalized a new anti-harassment policy that would protect women and men, as well as volunteers and candidates.

“After examination, it is the belief of the Utah Democratic Party that the several women who came forward years ago with allegations were not treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Merchant said.

Then in May, Nadia Mahallati, the party’s vice chair said she would not seek reelection. “Years ago, I decided to run for vice chair because of my frustration with several issues happening at the state party, primarily harassment issues,” she said.

The statements by Merchant and Mahallati appear to be related: Both reflected on the May 25, 2017, letter sent to the party executive committee in which seven women made allegations against Rob Miller, who had been party co-chair and treasurer and served on the executive committee for a decade. The allegations included: He kissed two women without consent; said to a woman, “you are sexy”; and hugged a woman very tightly. It was unusual that a group of women would make the allegations at the same time in the same document, and it wasn’t clear which woman was making which claim.

The letter was leaked to the media shortly before the party’s elections for officers. News outlets carried stories that included headlines like: “Seven Women Accuse Rob Miller of Sexual Misconduct.”

The letter came out as Mahallati—who was not a signatory—was running against Miller and six others for the party chairmanship. Miller was seen by some as the frontrunner.

Miller’s attorney, Rocky Anderson, questioned the timing of the leak and labeled the allegations as “a smear campaign” that unjustly harmed Miller and his family.

In a statement on Facebook, Miller said: “Due to accusations meant to destroy my character and candidacy and the public trial, hysteria and conviction that is continuing on social media and in the press, I felt that the best choice I could make for the party was to withdraw from the chair’s race.”

A scheduled intra-party hearing on the matter in 2019 was canceled at the request of the alleged victims over concerns about procedural errors.

In her announcement, Mahallati added: “Some of you know that the last two years haven’t been easy for me. There have been frustrations and disagreements and sometimes things were tense and even hostile.”

Other Democrats have criticized party infighting, but none would comment for the record on specific disputes. Unlike the Republicans, Dems don’t march in lockstep, partly because the party works to bring together a number of under-represented groups that can’t always agree on short-term goals.

On the other hand, while there is no room for sexual harassment, squabbling is part of politics. “The Democrats are a big-tent party,” Rush said. “Disagreements are welcome.”

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Policies Geared to Millennials and Gen Xers
The future is brightening for Utah Democrats, said state Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, and the party should look forward—not backward. Millennials and Gen Xers don’t identify with party politics, she explained. “So many older voters will only vote for Republicans,” she said. “But when voters—especially young voters—focus on policy, Democrats will be elected.”She pointed to the Dems ongoing efforts to provide health care to all Americans while Republicans have attempted to block it, including the expansion of Medicaid. “The idea that health care can be withheld based on wealth is not humane or American.”

Utah Democrats might consider using the successful 2020 campaign of Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-Kearns, as a prototype for future races. Matthews unseated Republican Eric Hutchings for the state House seat he’d held for 19 years. She did it the old-fashioned way: by knocking on doors and listening to people’s concerns.

“I’d never run before,” said the 34-year-old mother of two. “I said (to residents), ‘Let’s talk about right here, right now.’ It was specific for Kearns and what we can do right here in Kearns.”

When Democrats tell people about their policies on health care and education and the family, they become interested, said Shireen Ghorbani, a former Salt Lake County councilwoman who ran an unsuccessful campaign against Rep. Chris Stewart in 2018.

Ghorbani, who had no name recognition and little money, said she was not shunned as she went door to door in Republican-dominated areas outside the Wasatch Front, like Richfield and St. George. “The more we go out and talk to people about our policies, the more we have opportunities to convince voters,” she explained.


Insular Attitudes
With the exception of now-retired state Sen. Jim Dabakis, Democrats have been reluctant to shout out liberal and progressive stances. That is one of the major obstacles holding them back, said Peter Corroon, a Democrat who served as Salt Lake County mayor from 2005 to 2013. He also was chairman of the state Democratic Party and made an unsuccessful bid in 2010 against Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

“The Democratic Party in Utah needs at least one person to stand up and tell it like it is,” Corroon said. “The Republican Party no longer stands for anything. The Democrats are the party of the working class.”

Democratic legislators prefer to work quietly behind the scenes to get legislation passed without ruffling Republican feathers. This year, House Democrats successfully pushed some three dozen bills, including mental health protections for first-responders, police reform, youth suicide prevention, homeless youth protection and making human trafficking a first-degree felony.

Nonetheless, with a supermajority, Republicans can ram legislation through on pretty much anything. In 2020, they passed through three bills on abortion—a ban on most elective procedures, regulations on disposing of fetal remains and mandatory ultrasounds. The Utah GOP also passed legislation that would prohibit most elective abortions in Utah if Roe v. Wade is overturned. All were signed into law.

Beyond that, when Utah voters moved to expand Medicaid and medical marijuana because the Republican-dominated Legislature would not, conservative lawmakers trimmed back the initiatives.

Without more seats, Democrats can only look on.

Richard Davis, a BYU professor of political science, said it is clear how the Democrats could move forward: by being more Mormon-friendly.

In 2017, Davis, too, ran for chairman and lost. As chairman of the Utah County Democratic Party, he had sought to build bridges between moderate Democrats and moderate Mormons. That strategy, he said, was pushed aside with some hostility by state party power brokers.

“They are insular,” he said. “Their attitude is, ‘We’re not going to win elections outside Salt Lake County, so why try?'”

Shortly thereafter, Davis, along with a small group, formed the United Utah Party. “Our niche is moderate voters—people who don’t like today’s Republican and Democratic parties—and who are disgusted with politics as is,” he said.

In a short period of time, the United Utah Party has had some success. It produced an almost-full slate of candidates in 2020 and captured, on average, 10 percent of the vote. Four of the candidates got about 40 percent, Davis said.

And that, too, provides another challenge for Democrats.

Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” But the COVID-19 pandemic required a strong governmental response. The country also is facing crumbling bridges, roads and water infrastructure as well as continuing crises in health care, housing and higher education. The Reagan drumbeat of tax cuts for the wealthy, trickle-down economics and small government may be losing steam as the middle class continues to be squeezed.

Republicans in the Utah Legislature don’t appear to be convinced of that and continue to enjoy ratings by The Wall Street Journal and others as one of the best-run state governments.

But, as Utah Democrats like to say, things can change.