Matheson is similarly cynical that the outcry that resulted from the 2001 process will not result in a map more favorable to the minority party. “Quite frankly, I’m not here to sound too pessimistic, but I have no reason to believe it’ll be done any differently than it was last time.”
The political landscape beneath Democrats will shift even as the Utah Democratic Party shifts itself. Though many talk about the same old party values, like fair wages, affordable health care and environmental protection, new values will no doubt be defined as new leadership is ushered in.
Party Chair Holland, who’s held the seat since 2005, is not running for re-election. The labor-union leader’s steering of the party strategy looked brilliant after 2008 when Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson to win Salt Lake County. In local races, Democrats picked up one state Senate seat as well as three state House seats in Sandy—including the one belonging to then House Speaker Greg Curtis—and Salt Lake County’s Democratic mayor, Peter Corroon, was re-elected.
Those pickups in the Legislature, however, were lost in 2010, and the bleeding spread: In all, one Democratic senator and five Democratic representatives lost their seats—including Tooele’s Jim Gowans who had held his seat since 1992. As a result, Republicans now hold a 58-17 edge in the House and 22-7 edge in the Senate, representing the Democrats’ most depleted caucuses of the decade.
“I don’t think the [tea-party momentum heading into 2010] will last, so 2012 is a good year for us to get back on track,” Holland says. But Holland will be working on the Western States Finance Committee for Obama’s re-election, not on local Utah politics. His chairmanship will be assumed by one of two candidates for party chair: queer-rights activist Jim Dabakis or progressive middle-school teacher Robert Comstock.
Many Democrats accuse their party of mimicking Republicans to win votes and hope to see that change. For example, former Matheson challenger Claudia Wright forcefully criticized Republican proposals for state immigration reform presented at the 2011 legislative session. But Wright has little nice to say about state Democrats’ own immigration plans, which she said were “not in line with Democratic values,” particularly the bill sponsored by Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Luz Robles that would have basically required legal immigrants to carry identity documents at all times.
“There’s already a change under way,” Wright says. “Candidates who are coming forward in the county and state [Democratic Party] elections are progressive candidates who are tired of, essentially, the defensive methods used by the Democratic Party.” Wright criticizes Holland and other Democrats for being too meek and not forcefully exposing what she sees as Republican bad behavior. “They believe [Democrats] have to act like Republicans to get elected. I believe, in fact, we have to put out better policies and be very vocal about it and more consistent.”
Dabakis agrees that Democrats must be more aggressive and communicate better, but he parts ways with Wright-types on his view of Matheson. Matheson is still the best Rorschach test in liberal Utah politics. Utah Democrats either respect him and urge candidates to emulate him or accuse him of being in bed with corporations and illustrating what is wrong with American politics.
While Dabakis focuses much of his time on raising money for Democrats to “get to financial parity” with Republicans in the state—the wealthy businessman and art dealer certainly has the contacts for that—his opponent, Comstock, focuses on the poor. Democrats can win a majority in Utah, Comstock says, “if we become the party that’s accessible to the lower-middle class, the working poor. We have not made ourselves welcoming.” Comstock envisions a future Utah Democratic Party more embracing of those willing to stage an inter-party fight. “It was an incestuous good-ol’-boys club that kept out Claudia [Wright] because the leadership of the party … wanted to be gatekeepers to the party.”
Comstock wants to revive the Democrats through recruitment of new members. While Comstock says Dabakis “represents a wealthy candidate coming into politics because he has the time, money and resources,” Comstock sees himself as “a grass-roots candidate … [who’s] desperately concerned with the fact that the Democratic Party is not representing the voice of the people.”
Other insider-vs.-outsider battles for Democratic Party leadership are brewing. Former Wright campaign volunteer and state transportation engineer Deb Henry, of Salt Lake City, is seeking the vice chair position against Utah AFL-CIO president Jim Judd.
For secretary, former Salt Lake County Council candidate for District 2 Paul Pugmire faces off against former Democratic Party Chair Megan Risbon and party-politics newcomer Robert Henline, who pens a regular column in Q Salt Lake, Utah’s queer weekly newspaper, writes The Non-Partisan blog and even has written a few blogs on CityWeekly.net.
For treasurer, party insiders Rob Miller and John Rendell will face off.
Wright says she’s pleased with candidates showing up for county party positions as well, and she predicts the Utah Democratic Party after the July 16, 2011, organizing convention—when party elections take place—will be a new mix of young blood and “old guard.”
But will the infusion of new faces create the “big changes” Wright expects and hopes for? After all, it’s not as if Democrats didn’t have fiery progressives before now. Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson represented that strong-worded wing of the party but had few companions in his party known for their tough talk. Will the Democrats get tougher, more wily, more, well … popular? With their lowest numbers in years and gerrymandering on the way, is there anything they can do?
Upon telling Rep. Jim Matheson’s longtime spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrend, that this article would be partially about Democrats’ strategy over the past decade to make the best lemonade out of gerrymander lemons, she says, “I don’t think there was a strategy. … I lived through it. I don’t recall much of a strategy.”
After talking to a dozen prominent Utah Democrats, there’s not a clearly articulated plan for what comes after 2011 either, despite many Democrats’ calls for better messaging and organization. Matheson, Wright, Dabakis, Corroon and Holland all talk about communicating more clearly with voters about Democratic values and preventing the opposition from defining the Democrats’ image, but that’s just Politics 101—not really a strategy at all—and hardly keys into the decade-long disadvantage presented by redistricting.
After Matheson, the state’s highest-profile elected Democrat is Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon. He proposes a strategy that would, basically, build Democratic candidates from the ground up, much like his rise. “I want to have a good ‘farm team,’ and you win by hitting singles and doubles, not home runs. So, I think the best strategy would be a 29-county strategy or something like that, where we work very hard to get people into municipal government and work their way up to state government and federal government,” he says.
Wright echoes Comstock, urging massive voter-registration drives to increase party membership and educate potential voters. Matheson offers the rudimentary advice that Democratic candidates must make voters “feel they know you as an individual” by walking voting districts door to door.
The most frequently stated strategic idea Democrats currently espouse is actually just a hope that the Republican majority will fail. “Any time one party is in total power for too many years, I think citizens finally decide it’s not good government to have one group totally controlling everything,” Hansen says. Wright says the next decade may be exactly the same for Democrats, but that voters may come to think “[Republicans] have [run] far enough amok, having the dominance of one-party rule … [that] people will vote Republicans out of office.”
One thing is clear: Even if Republicans play it straight on redistricting, Democrats will be a minority. But simply removing the Republican super-majority in the Legislature—needing four House seats to do so—would be a huge accomplishment.
Salt Lake County—where Republicans hold a 5-4 majority on the council—created an independent, bipartisan redistricting committee to redraw their district lines, so the council members themselves will not influence their district boundaries, as they did in 2000. Redistricting results of 2000 have since led to the committee chairwoman, former Republican mayor of Taylorsville, Janice Auger Rasmussen, to comment on how council members in 2000 redrew their own boundaries: The 2000 lines have District 4 growing like a cancer into District 6, with northwest Salt Lake City represented in the same all-west-side district as Herriman, Bluffdale and Riverton. “I respect these people,” Auger Rasmussen said, “but some of the things they did horrify me.”
With mayors Corroon and Ralph Becker at the helm of Salt Lake County and City, respectively, Utah’s capital city, for now, remains a stronghold for Democrats. But with Republicans shrewdly calling the shots with brass-knuckled, self-serving gerrymandering at the state level and Democrats playing fair in the one county they govern, the blue party’s future in one of the reddest states may be limp for the foreseeable future.