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Dabakis Is Leaving the Building

Ever boisterous and outspoken, state senator says lending liberal voice trumps his bill tally.


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  • Enrique Limón

Why, you might ask yourself, is Sen. Jim Dabakis rhythmically rolling a yellow stress ball between his palms as he lounges at his back-row desk in the Senate chamber? You'd ask, because in his sixth year, the Salt Lake City Democrat doesn't appear to need stress relief.

Rather, he looks comfortable, content and contemplative—like a student conjuring what he'll do on summer vacation as he awaits the end of the school year. Reclining in his chair, he's passively observing the legislative machine at work—anticipating the midnight deadline only a few hours away. Dabakis flicks the golden orb a foot into the air and snatches it when it comes back down. A moment or two later, he jokingly pantomimes that he's going to pelt one of his Senate colleagues in the back of the head with the stress ball.

He doesn't. Instead, Dabakis gives the ball a hearty squeeze like it's the proverbial turnip from which he must extract blood. An impossibility, of course.

In some ways, Dabakis' tenure as a state senator is made up of a long compendium of impossible tasks. In the super-minority party, not only is Dabakis excluded from setting the agenda, he's barely given a chance to mold it. But that doesn't mean he has to hold his tongue.

On the last day of the 2018 session—the same night Dabakis mucks around with the stress ball—freshman Sen. Brian Zehnder, R-Holladay, seeks support for a Medicaid expansion bill. But before the roll call, Dabakis having yet to pick up the ball, rises and gives an animated speech, waving his arms and alternately pulling on and off his spectacles.

He's tired of the state's obstinate refusal to take federal dollars at the cost of poor citizens' health, he declares. Tax dollars that could be put toward health care are languishing in a "giant bucket in Washington, D.C.," Dabakis says. Zehnder's bill isn't a full expansion, and therefore isn't getting his vote.

So Dabakis moves to amend Zehnder's bill to expand Medicaid services with the expectation that the state would foot 10 percent of the costs.

"We're taking a check for $858 million to go to the poorest of the poor and we're ripping it up and we're shaking our fist toward Washington and we're saying, 'You keep this. We don't want it because we have some Utah plan,'" he says, summarizing the idea as one that ruthlessly denies coverage: "Our Utah plan is, 'No. No insurance for you and you and you and you.'"

It's an amendment Dabakis knew fully well had no chance of passage, and almost as quickly as it was introduced, the body rejects "the good senator from Salt Lake City."

It's a scene that in many ways epitomizes Dabakis' time in the statehouse. He pitched a grand, liberal solution to fix an issue that he finds unconscionably broken—only to see it go nowhere and get little support.

Since 2012, when voters picked Dabakis to serve, he's passed a mere four bills as the primary sponsor. He was a floor sponsor on nine additional bills. Altogether, more than half were resolutions, including one from 2016 honoring Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and another the year prior recognizing the 100th anniversary of the settlement of Clarion, Utah.

Asked about the dearth of successful bills that bear his name, Dabakis wears his record with unabashed satisfaction.

"I'm proud of that fact," he says, adding, "somehow we have allowed this idea that the success of a legislator equals the number of bills passed."

Dabakis represents the state's 2nd Senatorial District, the "People's Republic of the Avenues," he says tongue in cheek. But Dabakis has announced this term, which concludes at the end of the year, will be his last.

Dabakis isn't the only senator who's calling it quits after this session. The turnover is substantive, in fact, with party leaders in both chambers announcing the plan to retire. Nor is Dabakis the only lawmaker who represents a portion of Salt Lake City to leave the statehouse in pursuit of other interests.

But Dabakis' brand is recognizably unique. A headline magnet, Dabakis might be described as the Capitol's best "performer" if his antics weren't tempered by sincere conviction.

  • Enrique Limón

The morning after the session ended on another marathon slog, Dabakis meets with City Weekly at a coffeehouse in the Avenues. Having just come from a live RadioWest broadcast where he and House Speaker Greg Hughes touched on session high- and lowlights, Dabakis is busy hunt-and-pecking away at an email as he reflects on his time in office.

The sheer number of bills introduced continues to climb each year—a fact that members of the legislative and executive branch aren't shy to criticize. For Dabakis, bill quantity is a vacuous achievement.

"I could be there all day long getting crosswalk bills, and getting resolutions and bills that say good things about fighting cancer," he says. "But Democrats, in particular, have a bigger responsibility because Republicans are not going to let them pass serious bills.

"When is the last time a Democrat carried a $100-million education bill? When was the last time a Democrat was allowed to pass a major clean-air bill?" he continues. "They just don't happen, so you have to decide as a legislator: All right. What do I want to do? Do I want to pass bills in a frenzy or do I want to speak to the broader issues."

And, Dabakis notes, just because his name isn't attached to a bill doesn't mean he wasn't hustling behind the scenes, as was the case with a bill passed during the 2015 session to protect LGBTQ folks from employment and housing discrimination.

"Maybe my most important issue was bringing the homos and the Momos together," the openly gay Dabakis says. "But you will not find my name on that bill. It's nowhere to be found."

He sought common ground with high-ranking LDS church leaders the winter before that session. Sensing resistance from some lawmakers, Dabakis urged fellow senators Stuart Adams and Stephen Urquhart to co-sponsor the bill—to show that it was backed by leadership. In this instance, Dabakis' concerns didn't rest on whether he should send out a progressive Bat-Signal but focused solely on passing a law that would protect a marginalized demographic from discriminatory practices.

"I don't give a shit if it's my name on that or not," he says. "And I knew it would be less likely to pass if it had my name on it. So if I have a great idea and I really want it to pass, I go to my friends in the Senate and say this is a great idea and you really ought to do this. This whole ego thing of, 'My name is on the bill' and this frantic running around, particularly by Democrats, they waste too much time trying to prove to the world that they're relevant and they lose their voice and their ability to stand up and say, 'You know what? The emperor is naked.'"

More often, Dabakis finds himself opposing legislation as it fast-tracks through committee hearings and floor votes. Dabakis, in this arena, assumes the role of a bullhorn amplifying what he finds absurd.

"Sometimes a spotlight and sometimes cynicism and a bit of poking fun is the best way to call attention to the ridiculous," he says.

On Feb. 22, for example, Dabakis introduced a DUI-related bill to a Senate committee but waited until nearly the end of his testimony to disclose that he went to breakfast that morning and drank enough mimosas to register a .05 blood-alcohol concentration. He held up the breathalyzer encased in a plastic bag—like it was a piece of evidence from a crime scene.

"My entire presentation has been at .05," he told them.

Dabakis' bill asked to delay Utah's forthcoming DUI change until three other states also lowered their DUI limit from .08 to .05. The point, he explains later, was to demonstrate to some teetotaling lawmakers that a person with a BAC of .05 can function.

"This .05 is a draconian, non-scientific, horrendous change in our culture that is going to send potentially thousands of people to jail and affect their lives dramatically. A .05 to .08 is not drunk driving. It's not," he tells City Weekly. "They act like it's normal. It's not normal. It's going to destroy a lot of lives. I could have gotten up there and given a speech that wouldn't have been noticed, but I think I made the point a lot better."

Still, his bill failed miserably, and as of press time, the DUI law—the first of its kind in the nation—will go into effect at the year's end.

Dabakis' larks sometimes lead to successful outcomes, though, or at least contribute to GOP lawmakers pumping the brakes, he says.

Retiring Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, introduced a bill this session to rename a freeway in southern Utah the Donald J. Trump Utah National Parks Highway. Noel wanted to honor the president for reducing the size of two national monuments in the state, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Although the idea seemed premature to several officials, the bill passed convincingly through a House committee with a favorable recommendation. To Dabakis, the proposal wasn't just premature, but "incredibly offensive." And so he threatened to append the measure by christening an adjacent frontage road the Stormy Daniels Rampway, memorializing the adult film actress who allegedly had a secret tryst with Trump.

Dabakis knew that amendment wouldn't pass. But it helped draw national media attention.

"I suspect the reason they pulled [Noel's bill] out is because CNN did a piece, The New York Times did a piece, The Washington Post did a piece, the New York Daily News did a piece," he says. "No bill of mine would have had an effect, but it was blowing the whistle that made them say, 'We're not going to go there. We're getting rid of this bill.'"

Shortly after, the bill lost steam, and Noel decided against pushing for a floor vote. Dabakis can't help but feel partly responsible.

"That's my power to countervail this great majority," he says. "If you're a conscientious legislator, you use the whole toolbox, and so far, we don't have a big toolbox as Democrats."

  • Enrique Limón

Despite his vehement opposition to the GOP platform, Dabakis says he's never uttered a harsh word about any of his Senate colleagues.

"It's a hard needle to thread, but I can stand up and say what I'm going to say. It's never personal about any senator, and they allow me the freedom because they know it's sincere," he says. "I'm not trying to play politics or kill somebody's bill because of personalities or whatever. These [issues] are passionately what I feel and what my constituents feel, and importantly, what 35 percent of the state believes."

Which raises another quirk of Dabakis' political career: He doesn't see himself as merely a stand-in for voters in his district—but as a voice for the estimated third of Utahns who identify as progressive or left-leaning.

"It's 35 to 40 percent of the people all over the state who feel like they have no representation," he says. "To give that up, to say, 'OK, I've got this small bill or that small bill.' Or to say, 'I've got 10 bills passed this session,' seems to me to be a deal with the devil."

He blames gerrymandering for Democratic underrepresentation. The party disparity is so blatant to Dabakis, he has memorized data down to the decimal point: Democrats in legislative races get 38.7 percent of the statewide votes, he says, but only hold 22 percent of legislative seats. "I mean, this would make Putin proud," he comments.

Illustrating the problem, Dabakis draws a diagram on a legal pad representing the city of Ogden. The urban area is sliced up like a pie. Slivers of the city are clumped with suburban and rural populations, diluting the urban voice. And city dwellers, he argues, have unique issues that aren't being represented.

"I can go through a number of districts where there is no voice. People in Ogden are right. There is no voice for them. Nobody stands up. Who speaks for the Ogdens all over, who speaks for people all over the state who feel like, 'What the hell? Nobody is representing me,'" he says. "I always felt that's my job."

Dabakis is hopeful that his successor won't get caught up in passing bills by bending to Republican demands.

"They decide who passes bills and who doesn't and invariably that means they extract something for that," he says. "But I think our majority party colleagues respect me. They don't respect the Stockholm Syndrome people who roll into a ball and say, 'Pass one of my bills and leave me alone.' I hope that whoever replaces me will recognize that and be a loud voice. That's the only way to have influence. You can't just march in there and be quiet."

Sen. Jim Dabakis calls House Bill 155, Utah's controversial .05 DUI law, a "giant political blunder" at a rally on March 17, 2017. - ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón
  • Sen. Jim Dabakis calls House Bill 155, Utah's controversial .05 DUI law, a "giant political blunder" at a rally on March 17, 2017.

Whether the deference Dabakis receives from his GOP counterparts is due to his principled defenses or not, they do respect him.

Gov. Gary Herbert offered a ceremonial goodbye after sine die, congratulating Dabakis for serving six years that "felt like 24," he joked.

On RadioWest the following morning, exiting House Speaker Hughes declared he'd enjoyed sparring with Dabakis throughout the years. "He is a good man, and I love serving with him."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who also announced he will retire from the Legislature at the end of the year, is the mirror image of Dabakis in politics and demeanor and most other ways, too. He's a guy you might expect fights back the urge to roll his eyes whenever Dabakis takes the floor. But you'd be wrong.

"He always makes it fun," Niederhauser tells City Weekly. "I always have to smile when he gets up to oppose one of the Republican bills. A lot of people, I think, interpret that to be pure conflict but I've never seen it that way. He's become a dear friend of mine, and I always appreciated his point of view. He represents a constituency and his district well."

Niederhauser also disagrees that the number of bills passed is a meaningful yardstick. Instead, he says, hammering out legislation that tackles problems in major sectors of government like education, transportation and infrastructure should be held up as measures of success.

"Those are things that are going to make a difference for a long time ... not 10 bills that change a word here or a phrase there," he says. "And most of those big issues take a lot of effort."

Dabakis feels similarly about Republicans. He says, for instance, he'd love to have Herbert as a neighbor, and considers the governor a good guy coming at life from a different world view.

"We're a red state, but we're not a redneck state," Dabakis says. "So even though I disagree with Gov. Herbert a lot and I think he's dithering too much and he's not as bold a leader as I want, when I look at a lot of the crazy governors ... these fringe ideologs, I think, 'Thank God we have Gov. Herbert and Jon Huntsman before.' Even though they are wrong policy-wise, they are not nutcases."

  • Enrique Limón

Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, remembers offering advice to Dabakis, who as party chair had earned a reputation for throwing haymakers. Davis suggested that Dabakis—then a freshman—be disciplined and focused in his opposition, and when debating, stick to the matter at hand. More than half a decade later, Davis says Dabakis followed his advice.

"Sen. Dabakis has been a good, strong voice for his district. He's outspoken and he speaks his mind on issues," Davis says. "He's in probably the most progressive district in the state, and he represents the folks in that district very, very well. And he tends to get along with those on the other side of the aisle."

The reality, Davis says, is that no Democratic senator passes a lot of bills. "Do I pass a lot of bills? Probably not as many as I'd like," he says. "Our job is not to run the show; it's to respond to the show."

Although Davis doesn't have Dabakis' flair, he respects his colleague for standing up and making his opposition known. He hopes his replacement will be a strong leader.

"His voice and his spirit are going to be missed," Davis asserts.

Retiring from the public sector, Dabakis will continue to run Utah Progressives (UP), a grassroots outreach campaign for Utah liberals. Here, Dabakis is in his element. Conceptualizing it as a counterbalance to the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, UP has snowballed over the last two years through broadcast social media content and an email newsletter blast that reaches some 63,000 inboxes.

In this capacity, Dabakis also has found room to pull political stunts. On March 31, 2017, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, braced for a town hall meeting in West High School. Dabakis knew what was in store: Stewart was going to get an earful from his constituents, akin to the reception Rep. Jason Chaffetz received a month earlier in a town hall meeting that went so disastrously off script that it became a viral, referential postmark in Chaffetz' tenure. At the time, the response from Chaffetz' camp was that the loud and sustained boos came from paid rabble rousers.

Dabakis expected the same rhetorical line from Stewart.

"[Stewart] reserved the auditorium, which allowed him to say who could go in or out," Dabakis reflects. "So we rented the corridor outside the hallway, and he couldn't stop us. We gave him permission to walk through our corridor to get to his town hall."

Dabakis set up shop handing out 10-ruble notes featuring a picture of Lenin as the line snaked past—sardonically labeling each person a paid protester.

For decades, Dabakis made a living dealing art, mostly in Russia. But when a Russian business partner ripped him off, Dabakis returned home and spiraled into severe depression, he says. Around 2010, after consulting with his husband, Stephen, and his father, Dabakis turned to politics and decided to run for "the one thing I thought I could win"—the Democratic state party chair.

Two years later, he eyed the state Senate. In a special election to fill newly elected Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams' seat, he narrowly beat out former Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon by six delegate votes, earning him the antithetic nickname "Landslide Jim," according to Dabakis.

Since then, Dabakis says politics has permeated his bones, but the Senate is in need of new blood.

"It's been my life and I'm not complaining," he reflects. "I've loved every minute of it, but I also believe in a citizen legislature. People leave their firms and their art dealerships and doctors offices, and they go up and concentrate and do the work, but then you've got to get the hell out."

  • Enrique Limón

Dabakis On Dabakis
The candid senator looks back on some of his more memorable quotes.

By Enrique Limón

The second floor of the Senate Office Building is about to get a lot quieter. That's where for the better part of the past six years, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, has machined the viral mystique that has tinged his tenure. Fine art in gilded frames decorates one side of his compact working area—remnants, he says, from his days as an art dealer to the Russian elite—while a desk of sorts (a table covered with a picnic-style vinyl cloth and fake, toy food), a logo-emblazoned banner backdrop and professional lights hanging from above fill out the other side of the space.

"The job of the person from Senate District 2 is a sacred, holy seat. And I think the job for somebody who sits in this chair, is to be a voice for 40 percent of Utah. Not just in Salt Lake City, but all over the state, and so the way to have influence is not to lose every vote 24-5, it is this way—talking over Facebook; letting the message out; it's tweeting; it's having 30,000 Facebook friends—that's the only way to get the message out," he says of the impromptu TV studio. "If you play by their rules, you'll lose every vote."

As the senator adjusts his pink tie ("I like to make people uncomfortable," Dabakis says of the choice with a wink), he's confronted with some of his more indelible remarks, and with the buoyancy of a freshly popped bottle of bubbly, gives updated context for a meta experience. True to form, he'll go off the record several times with a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, leaving his best, most unabashed comments on the cutting room floor.

Quote No. 1: "The mayor evolved on LGBT issues, but I wouldn't exactly call him a Harvey Milk. It just hasn't been a top issue with him."
-On former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, City Weekly, July 15, 2015.

Dabakis on Dabakis: "What can I say? ... Ralph was a beloved mayor." (Laughs)

"[It's] like asking the NBA to come up with new rules for lacrosse. Having Utah be on the cutting-edge of national liquor laws, simply doesn't make sense."
-Anti-HB155 gathering at the Capitol, March 17, 2017.

DoD: "Well, I was right. The whole State Legislature was wrong, and we're gonna pay a huge price in tourism and in economic development—that's pretty serious."

"Today I said YES to serving on the UTA Board of Trustees (pending approval by the SLC Council). I realize there may be some heartburn in some circles."
-Press release, May 31, 2017.

DoD: "Right. Well, the Utah Transit Authority and the City Council won the sprint, but I won the marathon because we totally obliterated the governing method of the whole corrupt UTA and I'm proud to have done that ... and I'm grateful to the Salt Lake City Council for doing the wrong thing, because I think that went a long way toward motivating the destruction of the UTA board."

"I am grateful that I was able to play a part in bringing the 'homos and the Momos' together with the historic 2015 LGBTQ Non-Discrimination Law ..."
-Facebook post announcing he wouldn't be seeking re-election, Feb. 20.

DoD: "It was hard, but at least for one brief, shining moment, we were there all together like Camelot."

"I went out and had breakfast and had two mimosas and I feel perfectly fine."
-Speaking before the Senate Transportation Committee during a legislative hearing, Feb. 22.

DoD: "Look, this is preposterous, having these men make the liquor laws. It's like—what is a very strange combination?—it's like having vegetarians write the rules for slaughterhouses. You know? It makes no sense. It's just crazy."

"HB 481, 'Donald J. Trump Utah National Parks Highway Designation' passed House Committee 9 to 2. If it gets to the Senate, I will present an amendment that the frontage road be designated as the Stormy Daniels rampway."
-Twitter post, March 5.

DoD: "I'm a little disappointed, because I think the Stormy Daniels Rampway would have been a big tourist attraction. We would have picked exit ramps with a lot of curves, and ones that ... well, OK, I can't go down that road." (Laughs)