An out-of-state friend once joked to me that if you love Zen meditation and watching paint dry, then you’ll love Utah politics even more. At least in the course of meditation, you run the chance of a fleeting thought. And when it comes to paint, you can choose your color, unless your interior decorator is a Utah Republican.
Utah politics is a bit like visiting a grandparent in a nursing home. The conversation contains moments of poignancy and small drama, but the story line rambles on as long as it is always the same. And why wouldn’t it? Utah’s Republican story line is a smashing success.
Be that as it may, someone’s got to defend our state’s eccentric politics, and I’m happy to oblige. Where else in the nation will you see photographs in the daily newspaper of public school teachers training with mock handguns? Where else in the nation will you see a state legislator abuse science and gloat in triumph over Charles Darwin because he’s seen dogs, and he’s seen cats, but he’s “never seen a â€˜dat’â€? Where else will you see state lawmakers talk about gay people as if they were discussing a leper colony? Where else, I ask you, will you see citizens weep openly at the news that President Clinton cheated on his wife but never shed a tear over thousands of innocent Iraqis dead or maimed for weapons of mass destruction that never existed?
All this is supposed to be cause for great embarrassment among people on the opposing end of the political spectrum. Well, embarrassment is easy. The better perspective is admitting that states such as ours, along with the Bible Belt and other so-called “heartland” states, steel the Democratic opposition everywhere else. Just imagine how lazy and apathetic these people would be without Utah.
And perhaps optimism springs eternal. There’s been plenty of talk for almost two years now about how the American West is poised for some sort of swing to the left, however slight. This pitch is a somewhat complicated and subtle mix of trends and possibilities comprised of four parts. First, voters in the West are increasingly well educated, with a growing base of East and West Coast transplants who move here for the scenic beauty and recreational opportunities. As a consequence, that means more voters who care about environmental issues, in marked contrast to the traditional cowboy caucus. Second, the West is home to a growing Latino population, a traditional stronghold of the Democratic Party. And, third, even Republicans of the West tend to be a little different than Republicans elsewhere. In marked contrast to the Republicans of the Bible Belt, who anxiously await a Republican theocracy that will outlaw abortion, put prayer back in schools, and keep gay Americans out of public discourse and back into the closet, the Republicans of the American West tend to be a little more libertarian in their views. That is, they don’t trust the federal government to run people’s lives any more than they trust it to spend tax money wisely or tell them what kind of handguns they can purchase.
Alas, even those who highlight this theory on an active basis, pointing to evidence of more competitive races between Democrats and Republicans in Colorado, Montana, Arizona and New Mexico admit the trend is barely visible in such Republican citadels as Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. But that doesn’t mean Utah Democrats aren’t watching for signs.
“I think we’re just slower around the trend curve,” says Democratic Salt Lake County Councilman Joe Hatch. “There’s no question that both parties are picking up on this trend and trying to figure it out.”
Hatch himself is one of those doing the figuring. For him, any honest assessment of Utah politics starts with the admission that if we’re indeed a one-party state operationally, we’re at least a three-party state when it comes to elections. We’ve got the Republicans, sure. But they’re split in two between moderates and the far right, with Democrats making noise somewhere on the sidelines. If Democrats are poised to take power anywhere, it’s at the level of Salt Lake County and will probably reach fruition only with the help of another big scandal'an encore from Nancy Workman, perhaps?'and some very active campaigning past the county’s 6400 South line.
“I’m absolutely convinced that most LDS voters are as disgusted with the far-right candidates of the Republican Party as are many other people,” Hatch says. “But those voters tend to fall back on their defaults. They’re more afraid that the Democrat on the ballot they don’t know might embarrass them in the style of Rocky Anderson. â€¦ What I’ve tried to do for years when I was chairman of the Salt Lake County Democratic Party was convince candidates south of 6400 South that they must become known to voters. That is, they must go door-to-door at least twice, and do lots of mailings.”
But don’t go door-to-door on a Monday night. Anyone who’s lived in Utah more than two years knows the consequence of such a mistake. Utah’s religious landscape baffles, but it’s not indecipherable. Any candidate for office in this state must show his or her religious colors, but not at the risk of appearing grotesque. Ted Wilson, three-term mayor of Salt Lake City and longtime observer of Utah’s political scene as past director of the U of U’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, believes Utah voters are attracted to the personal touch and traditional values gently pronounced'watch carefully any mention of guns, gays and abortion'even as they’re repelled by astringent campaign tactics.
“People in other states expect campaign drama'expect it and even get a kick out of it,” Wilson says. “I don’t know that we’re any nicer than other states, it’s just that on that score, we’re very sensitive.”
So get yourself known, Utah Democrats, as Hatch advises. And get yourself known in a polite, even traditional way, as Wilson advises. It will probably be a long time coming before Utah even approaches the bluish hue of red states like Colorado and Montana'but a starting point exists.