Closet Democrats 

Utah County Democrats, derided for years as demons, are coming out proud.

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The recent departure of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party has left the GOP scrambling, wringing its hands and fighting claims that it has catered too much to the extreme right wing of the party. As Jeffords left, he said he had found himself increasingly in disagreement with the Republican Party as it grew more conservative. A similar occurrence may be happening in Utah County, often called the most Republican county in the nation.

As the Utah County GOP continues its move to the right, Democrats are becoming more outspoken in their insistence that they’re centrist and politically moderate. Democrats in Utah County still face tremendous obstacles, but quietly and almost unnoticed they’re gaining ground.

Jed Mitchell was surprised at the reaction he received when he trudged door-to-door as a Democratic candidate for the state Senate in Utah County. It was during the election season of 2000, as Al Gore and George W. Bush were racing around the country in a frenzied attempt to secure the close presidential race. The residual fallout from former President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky/impeachment scandal was still hanging in the air, choking the Democratic Party and clouding the issues.

Democrats in Utah County knew they were in for an uphill battle in the conservative bastion, but they were galvanized. For the first time in 30 years they had a full slate of candidates running for state and congressional offices.

The Utah County Democratic Party had been quietly organizing. When Nancy Woodside took over as chairman of the party in 1999, she was handed an outdated mailing list of roughly 860 names, and about half of the people on the list had either died or moved. But as the party gained momentum, the mailing list of current Utah County Democrats grew to around 7,000 people.

Mitchell, a local banker, was part of the wave of enthusiasm that engulfed the party. He was running in a bitter state Senate race in southern Utah County, pitted against Bill Wright, an ultra-conservative Republican incumbent. Mitchell knocked on doors with some trepidation, wondering what sort of reception he would receive as a Democrat in Republican territory.

At one house, a man answered the door. “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?” he asked Mitchell. “I’m a Democrat,” Mitchell answered, wondering if the door was going to be slammed in his face.

The man leaned forward, looked up and down the quiet tree-lined street to make sure no one was watching and whispered to Mitchell, “Well, I’m a Democrat too, but all my neighbors are Republicans.” Mitchell asked if he could put a campaign sign on the lawn. The man decided that it was time to come out of the closet and let the world know he was a Democrat. He put up a sign.

At the next door, a woman leaned forward and whispered to Mitchell, “Well, I’m a Democrat, but all my neighbors are Republican.” By the time Mitchell had finished working the street, there was a row of signs on lawns pledging support, and the neighbors had come out of their houses and were talking with each other in utter surprise.

“There are Democrats out there,” Mitchell said. “They just need to be contacted. And we just need to show the people in Utah County that they don’t need to be embarrassed to be a Democrat. They don’t have to be closet Democrats.”

Impressive Growth

The Democratic Party in Utah County has been growing in the past few years. Although members of the party haven’t won any races recently, a look at the voting patterns shows that the party is gaining ground:

In 1996, four Utah County Democrats ran for the Legislature and drew 13,887 votes.

In 1998, seven Utah County Democratic candidates ran for Legislative offices and drew 16,616 votes.

In 2000, 15 Democrats ran in Utah County and got 51,000 votes, double the number of candidates and triple the number of votes they had received in the election before.

Sitting in her office recently, Nancy Woodside learned back in her chair and recalled when she decided to roll up her sleeves and take on the Utah County Republican Party. She was reading a newspaper and came across an article about the death of the Democratic Party in the Utah County. “That was unacceptable,” she said, her Bostonian accent growing thicker with emotion. “I decided to put my money where my mouth is.”

So the feisty Democrat from Boston who had made her mark in the civil rights movement of the 1960s registering black voters in the South marched into the election office and signed up to run against Republican County Commissioner David Gardner.

She campaigned throughout the county, trying to make a dent in what has been an all-male, all-Republican county commission for as long as anyone can remember.

In the end she lost, receiving only 16,942 votes to Gardner’s 45,577.

In Utah County, a Democrat still has a hard time winning, even against a county commissioner who has been charged with a DUI and who told the press it was because he picked up a hitchhiker and sampled an unknown substance from a plastic cup offered to him by his fellow traveler. Since the election, Gardner has been charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly roughing up a child in his neighborhood, and another DUI. The earlier DUI urine sample had been disposed of before it could be tested. The second came back positive, and pictures of Gardner weaving and swaying during the roadside sobriety test were captured in newspaper photos.

Now, Woodside says people come up to her and tell her they wish they had voted for her instead of Gardner. But she’s moved on, picking up the reins of leadership for the Democratic Party in Utah County. She’s determined to make the party grow, although she and her fellow Democrats know they face some large obstacles in their quest to change the political landscape in Utah County.

Right Wingers

When Woodside took the helm of the Utah County Democratic Party, some people told her she was dreaming the impossible dream if she thought she could make inroads in such a conservative Republican county. The influence of the right wing group the Eagle Forum permeates the political atmosphere of Utah County.

“They have more influence in Utah County than probably anywhere else in the state,” said David Magleby, a political science professor at BYU. “They have a substantial influence in the Republican Party.”

Magleby has observed Utah County politics for years, analyzing the campaigns and studying the players. He speaks quickly, with few hesitations about the political thrusts and parries that make up political battles in the county.

The Eagle Forum, though its membership roster is relatively small, has influenced politics in Utah County and throughout the state through phone-tree politics and heavy attendance at meetings that matter. “The faction can be organized, mobilized and turn people out for mass meetings, precinct caucuses, county conventions and state conventions,” said Magleby. “They have a very exaggerated voice.”

The Republicans are engaged in internal fighting that pits the conservative and business factions of the party against the ultra-right wing, Eagle Forum faction of the party. “On one hand, the Democrats seem to be on the brink of making a breakthrough, but they’re just finding themselves a little short financially and in terms of their core vote,” said Magleby. “But the Republicans are finding themselves in some pretty negative and bitter internal fighting.”

The result is that the Republican Party has drifted to the right and the legislative delegation from Utah County contains some very conservative lawmakers. “It’s one of the more conservative counties,” Magleby said. “The reputation of the legislative delegation is that it’s clearly one of the most conservative legislative delegations.”

Woodside says the Republican Party has lost touch with its constituents in Utah County. “I don’t believe the Republican Party in Utah County represents the mainstream views of the Republicans in Utah County,” she said. “It certainly does not represent the working families of Utah County, who are working several jobs just to keep the family going.”

And that’s why she predicts people are going to continue to turn to the Democratic Party. Some of the newer converts to Woodside’s ranks, including several of the Democratic candidates who ran for the Legislature, are former Republicans who became disenchanted with the Republican Party in Utah County.

“Republicans have talked to me about their frustrations with the Republican Party,” Woodside said. “They want to know, ‘How do we get our county back to mainstream politics that are representative of the county?’ They were looking for something that was not so fanatical and extreme as what is presently in the Republican Party.”

Mormon Democrats?

Even as the party grows, Democrats in Utah County face two difficult hurdles. They have to fight the concept that a good Mormon can’t be a Democrat. They also have to tackle the abortion issue.

Getting moderate candidates like Mitchell to run has been part of the strategy of the Utah County Democratic Party. Mitchell grew up in the sleepy town of Payson, is a vice president of the Bank of American Fork and a member of the LDS church, as are more than 80 percent of the voters in his district. In spite of all this, he still had to face the religion issue. Mitchell campaigned hard as a Democratic candidate for the state Senate but lost, garnering 10,936 votes to Wright’s 18,314. He believes the turning point in his election came when his opponent wrote an op-ed piece for The Payson Chronicle saying a person couldn’t be a Mormon and a Democrat.

“The issue is whether faithful members can in good conscience support the official tenets and substantiated agenda of the [Democratic] party,” Wright wrote in his column. “The answer, of course, is no.” He continued, “The Republican platform itself is as sound and representative of Utah as an LDS family Home Evening manual.”

The same theory is recycled every year around election time: In order to be a good Mormon you have to be a Republican. “But it’s not the church that has done this,” insists Trisha Beck, a church member and Democrat legislator. “One of the political parties has taken this on for their own political gain.”

Over the past few years, the LDS church has tried even harder to signal its political neutrality to its members. “The church has consistently made it clear over the years that political neutrality is a key principle,” said LDS church spokesman Dale Bills. “Claims by any candidate that the church supports his or her political position, officially or unofficially, have no basis in fact.”

The Abortion Battle

At least 70 percent of Utahns claim membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Over 50 percent classify themselves as “very active” in the church. In Utah County, Magleby estimates that those numbers are probably higher by 10 percent or more.

In church-going Utah County, one of the greatest political battles centers on abortion. But the argument isn’t pro-choice versus pro-life. It’s more accurately represented as pro-life Mormon Democrats versus pro-life Mormon Republicans. It’s a political game of tug-of-war, with the Republicans insisting, “We’re more pro-life than you are.”

“The Republicans, more than the Democrats, have been able to frame the issues and define the candidates and they’ve skillfully used the abortion issue to tar and feather the Democrats,” Magleby said.

Stan Lockhart, then-chairman of the Utah County Republican Party, wrote an opinion piece in Provo’s The Daily Herald during the last election season, where he voiced his skepticism about Utah County Democrats’ pro-life stand.

Lockhart wrote that Republicans had built “a house made up of moral values,” and Democrats had been enviously observing the Republican house for years and now wanted to move in. But, he continued, the Democrats would bring with them “termites representing their core liberal belief.”

“Utah County Democrats are fond of saying they aren’t run-of-the-mill Democrats,” he wrote in his conclusion. “But abortion by any other name is still abortion. Simple honesty from Democrats on the issues would be a breath of fresh air … If Democrats’ values are truly in line with mainstream Utah values, maybe they should become Republicans.”

“That was the most discouraging thing,” said John Curtis, a Mormon and a Democratic candidate for the state Senate in the last election. “People insisting that they knew what I believed more than I knew what I believed.”

Magleby points out that there’s a wide range of opinions on abortion, even though there are zealots on both sides who see the issue in terms of black and white. “Some of the pro-life zealots wouldn’t even support the LDS church position on [abortion being acceptable in the cases of] rape and incest,” Magleby said. “I think most voters in Utah would find that unacceptable and would disagree with that.”

It’s the issue that helps keep the Republicans’ lock on power in Utah County secure. “It has clearly hurt the Democrats and continues to hurt them,” Magleby said.

It’s a wedge issue that Utah County Republicans won’t let go of because they don’t want to have to address other issues, says Woodside. “They just want to label us pro-abortion,” she notes. “They didn’t want to talk about education, gun issues, energy and the real issues of wages and benefits. It’s a routine tool in a politician’s bag of tricks.”

Some Utah County Republicans are said to conduct whisper campaigns, saying if Democrats get elected to the Legislature, they’ll be strong-armed by their leadership to vote the liberal party line.

Not so, says State Rep. Ralph Becker (D-Salt Lake City), a slim live wire of a man and Democratic Minority Whip in the Legislature, who speaks with passion about diversity within the party. “We value different points of view,” Becker said. “That’s healthy. We don’t believe in stifling voices.”

There are, of course, factions within the Democratic Party nationally that represent both pro-life and pro-choice views. The Wirthlin Group conducted a study in 1998 of Democrats across the nation and found that 38 percent of Democrats polled were pro-life. Nationally, pro-life Democrats are often nicknamed “Bob Casey Democrats” after Robert Casey, the former pro-life Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. The National Pro-Life Democrats Committee keeps a listing on its Web site of pro-life Democrats in Congress. Presently there are nine congressional Democrats listed from states including West Virginia, Texas, Ohio, Virginia, Louisiana and Michigan.

In spite of the acceptance of pro-life Democrats in other parts of the country, it’s going to be a continuing battle for Utah County Democrats. “The Democrats are going to have to find a way to overcome that issue and it won’t just be from running away from it,” Magleby said.

What’s next for Democrats?

Recently, as she was re-elected chairman of the county Democratic Party, Woodside told Democrats they had to stand for something other than “Not Republican.” She’s been urging party members for years to stop talking about what they didn’t like about the Republican Party. She wants them to start talking about what they offer as Democrats: concern about a long-range plan for education; the environment; a living wage; consumer protection and banning guns in schools and churches. It’s time to turn the debate around, she says.

During the last election cycle, Woodside enlisted Democratic candidates for all Utah County legislative districts. It was a tough pill to swallow when they all lost, although one candidate, Paul Meredith from the southern part of the county, came achingly close, falling short by 600 votes out of the almost 7,000 votes cast in his district.

Woodside says now it’s time to regroup and redirect efforts. The next phase for the Utah County Democrats will be local and municipal elections for city council, mayor, school board and other so-called non-partisan races. In those contests they won’t have to face straight party voters. In the last election, 30,780 Republicans voted a straight party ticket in Utah County, while only 6,410 voted a straight Democratic ticket. Nonetheless, Woodside believes Democrats can have a positive impact at the city level.

“That level of community involvement is very important in terms of protecting the environment, green space and open space,” she explained. Woodside also says Democrats will be able to fight to prevent situations like the one Spanish Fork is facing presently, where a developer was allowed to build a housing subdivision on an improperly capped dump. Residents ended up getting sick from the methane gases and other toxins in the soil.

“It’s a smart strategy,” Magleby said. “They can build up name recognition and people tend to get confident with them as decision makers in those kinds of settings. Maybe they’ll be able to translate that into a countywide office or maybe even a run for Congress.”

But Woodside hasn’t totally given up on the state Legislature. “I want someone [Democratic] elected to the state Legislature,” Woodside said. “I want the stranglehold of the far-right Republican Party broken.”

Could it happen? Or is it just wishful thinking? “The Democrats need to be poised to try and exploit the Republican intra-party battle that is ongoing and is really very nasty,” Magleby said. “I think if they’re ready to capture it, the voters may well have had enough of it and be looking for an alternative.”

The one-party situation in Utah will eventually catch up with Republicans, says Democratic leader Becker. “I just hear from more and more people who are fed up with closed government and fed up with closed minds.”

OK to be a Democrat

Even if people become dissatisfied with a state Legislature that is so overwhelmingly Republican that it can conduct its business in closed caucus, convincing voters in Utah County that it’s acceptable to be a Democrat is still a daunting challenge. During the last election cycle, the son of one of Democrat running for office came in to talk to Woodside. “He was afraid that his friends would make fun of him, ridicule him and ostracize him because his dad was running as a Democrat,” Woodside recalled. “He didn’t really know what a Democrat was. He just knew that being one was a bad thing and that was going to make him one of the ‘out’ group.”

Woodside took some time to help him understand that Democrats aren’t the bad guys that some portray them as in Utah. But she looked into his eyes and knew that Democrats have immense challenges in front of them as they attempt to change the political culture of Utah County. “Here are children who are afraid when their parents step forward to be Democrats,” Woodside said. “And that’s a shame”

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About The Author

Anne Golden

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