Utah Dems convene in Park City, striving for unity amid infighting at the top
“Unity” was the watchword at the Utah Democratic Party’s state convention Saturday, but the divisions delegates mentioned weren’t about Bernie vs. Hillary, Medicare for All or the Green New Deal.
Instead, several Democrats in interviews cited the importance of moving beyond intraparty squabbles and problems with the party’s finances to be able to attack the 2020 elections head-on.
The most important event on the docket at the convention, held at Park City High School, was the election of a new party chair, a role many Democrats explained has a twofold importance: effectively communicating the party’s message and administering the party apparatus, which is used to recruit, train and fund candidates for office.
Jeff Merchant was elected to replace Daisy Thomas as party chair by a nearly 4-to-1 margin in a campaign that turned negative on Facebook in the days immediately prior to the convention. Many Democrats The Park Record spoke to mentioned political infighting and the party’s debt as issues they would like to see the next chair resolve.
Longtime Salt Lake County Councilor Jim Bradley pointed out the challenges in the job, which he said is essentially an administrative role, but one that also requires the political skills to campaign and raise money. He said it’s natural to see people cycle through it.
“Running a state organization is hard,” Bradley said. “I always appreciate anybody willing to do it.”
In the other elections of the day, Nadia Mahallati was elected vice-chair after two rounds of balloting, Michael Bryant was elected secretary and Sheila Srivastava was elected treasurer.
At a time when Democratic presidential candidates are rolling out plans and trying to create daylight between themselves and their opponents on issues like health care, immigration and foreign policy, the talk that dominated the convention concerned party politics more than policy.
Most everyone mentioned the success of U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams flipping Utah’s 4th congressional district in 2018 as a signal of Democratic momentum. McAdams, who won by about 700 votes out of a quarter-million cast, stood in the lobby conducting interviews and chatting with Democratic brass, a sort of physical manifestation of the change Utah Democrats hope for.
Bradley said. “We’re not throwing in the towel.”
Most Democrats were encouraged by recent successes and the general message seemed to be a positive one.
Summit County Democratic Party Chair Meredith Reed said the location of the convention itself shows the party’s strength outside of its traditional stronghold of Salt Lake City.
“There’s a lot of positive energy, a lot of people looking for more ways to get involved,” Reed said.
She agreed with the importance of unity, though she noted it “doesn’t just happen.” She said it would be incumbent on the state party chair to build relationships and travel around the state.
“Every zip code matters,” Reed said. “We have a strong base, a lot of positive energy once the dust settles … (and) good momentum to build on.”
Emily Hase, chair of the Salt Lake County Democrats, said the party is on the right path and that it’s important to keep the momentum going. She sees the biggest challenge as bringing the Democratic message to more rural parts of the county.
Hase, though, is concerned with the party’s debt, which she said means some money is going to fees rather than to the candidates. Democrats want to say they’re the real party of fiscal prudence, Hase said, which is a tough sell when it looks as though it can’t manage its own finances.
Hase’s goal is for the party to flip enough Statehouse seats in the 2020 election — 11 by her count — to break Republicans’ supermajority in the Legislature to give Democrats a bigger say in the redistricting process.
“We’re ready for a fight in 2020,” she said.
Katie Matheson, chair of the progressive CD4 Coalition, was one of the most optimistic about the party and its chances in the future.
She said McAdams’ win “scared” a lot of Republicans, and there’s “a lot of hope” for those who identify as moderate-left or left on the political spectrum.
She said she sees the activist energy growing in the party, and that the state’s history of feminism and communitarianism aligns with Democratic positions.
“Just looking at the values of Utahns and the values on the left, they’re the same,” Matheson said. “(We) took care of each other, (we’re a) community-based, immigrant-friendly state. We’re a state of religious immigrants.”
She pointed to millennial members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a source of potential support, and talked about arts and education funding as issues that resonate with a lot of Utah voters.
Many Democrats echoed Matheson’s comments about education funding, including Brett Garner, a West Valley Democrat wearing an LDS Democrats shirt who is married to a schoolteacher and is the father of two children.
He said he wants to see a strong Democratic party that reflects his values and focuses on issues like education, health care and immigration. The latter issue reveals how Republicans, Garner said, have abandoned the moral high ground.
“Breaking families up, I find that abhorrent in the deepest degree,” Garner said. He believes the solution to immigration should be “family based.”
The crowd flowed into and out of the auditorium as Democrats gave speeches endorsing candidates and worked out the party platform. Two food trucks were camped out in the parking lot, and there were more lobster rolls than one might expect to see at a political convention.
Most of the attendees appeared to be older and white, an issue a few Democrats said was more due to the setting — a wonky convention — rather than a lack of youth support and diversity in the party.
Two members of Utah Carpenters Local Union 801, Chad Hembree and Calvin Fors, said they wanted to see the party focus on labor, tax fraud and jobs rather than getting too far left or right.
Hembree said he’s seen Democratic momentum picking up among the younger generation on job sites, and Fors added people are starting to rethink whether the “Grand Ol’ Party really is the workingman’s party.”
Three attendees in their early 20s, one the campaign manager for a party chair candidate and the other two having tagged along, stressed the importance of standing up and communicating Democratic positions.
Breanna Kirkbride, who was managing Robert Comstock’s unsuccessful bid for party chair, talked about the need to “build bridges” with positive communication and stay away from “us vs. them” rhetoric. She, too, cited the party infighting and debt as significant issues.
Jared McCash said he was frustrated with the party’s handling of how the Legislature altered two ballot initiatives approved by voters in last fall’s election.
“If that happened in another state, it would be national news,” McCash said. “Why does my vote even matter?”
Thayne Sharich said he “was along for the ride” and that it was his first involvement in party politics. He said he was moved when he saw the emotion on display during an Education Caucus meeting earlier in the day, recounting a story of how a woman broke down in tears when describing the conditions in the public school where she worked.
The trio came from the Rose Park area in Salt Lake City, and Kirkbride marveled at the difference between West High School, where they had come from, and Park City High School.
“The difference between West High and Park City, for the educators, for the unions fighting for everyday lives, that’s who the party should be fighting for,” Kirkbride said.
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