Utah’s Democrats made a huge blunder in the 2013 Legislative session that could have big repercussions on their ability to expand their numbers statewide.
Their very public support of a resolution calling on Congress to protect the canyonlands area in southern Utah is a nice idea that will play well with the base, but it’s a huge middle finger to voters in southern Utah.
Why was this such a bad idea? There are currently zero Democrats in the legislature from outside of Salt Lake County. The only rural member of their caucus, Christine Watkins, lost in 2012 and is reportedly switching parties in an effort to regain her seat in 2014.
Remember Bill Orton? He represented Utah’s 3rd Congressional District from 1991 to 1997 as a Democrat. In 1996, President Bill Clinton used the Antiquities Act to create Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument -- a move many say caused Orton to lose to Republican Chris Cannon that year. Creating Grand Staircase took vast swaths of public land off the table for economic and energy development, angering many in southern Utah who already had plans for parts of the land -- including a coal mine. At the time, they felt the move cost them jobs and would hurt their economy.
The same dynamics are in play right now as recreation and energy interests are competing for use of the canyonlands area. Sure, Democrats are calling for more local input this time around in order to avoid the same kind of political backlash that resulted in Orton’s ouster in 1996. But make no mistake, asking the federal government to get involved in land issues is the kind of thing that does not play well among many in rural Utah.
And Utah’s Democrats need rural Utahns if they have any hope of expanding beyond the boundaries of Salt Lake County. Tying themselves to this resolution will alienate those voters they desperately need to woo. This resolution appeals to supporters they already have locked up. As one Democratic lobbyist put it, “We need to spend more time recruiting rural Utahns, not members of the Sierra Club.” A quick look at the party’s website reveals three rural counties (Garfield, Piute and Rich) don’t appear to have anyone heading up efforts there. In fact, the website practically begs for someone to step up to the plate in those counties.
I’m not arguing that rural Utahns want to recklessly exploit this area. It’s widely considered a national treasure, and residents there have a love for the land that is hard for many (including me) to understand because that’s not where we live. The problem is, Democrats are playing to a small urban-based group that holds huge sway within their own party. That’s how you get elected in Salt Lake County. That’s also how you get creamed year after year outside of the Wasatch Front.
The lack of rural voices among Utah’s Democrats has skewed their discussion. There’s nobody counterbalancing the strong advocacy for environmental protection with the perspective of those who make their living by ranching or farming or energy development. It’s a worthy debate. It’s an argument where Democrats could find a foothold if they could balance the two messages. Right now, it’s tilted in one direction and it’s something most rural Utahns don’t want to listen to.
Democrats are fond of saying their values are Utah values, and if most residents took time to look beyond party labels, they would get that message across. Here is a case where Utah’s minority party is tone deaf to the concerns of those who would be most affected by their proposal.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the message in politics and not the messenger. That’s certainly true here.