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Going Going...

Utah Democrats are on the verge of extinction. But one insider knows how they can come back.



On August 25, the Utah Democratic Party will hold its annual convention. The burning question is, what’s going to be different? Because for Democrats in Utah, you can’t get much worse than the way things are right now.

I moved back home to Utah a year and a half ago. Since then, I’ve been on the staff of two political races (working for Democrats both times) and I’ve spent time with a lot of members of the Utah Democratic Party. My observations are those of an insider, but not one who has vast experience or is completely versed in the history of the state party. I’m sure there are players I haven’t met and perhaps insight that I lack. But since a fresh point of view can be of value, I’m going to share my observations of what I’ve seen working with Democrats in Utah.

To say the party is in trouble is an understatement. The party old-timers are discouraged and jaded. Many Democrats who have given long years of service to the party’s cause are now fading quietly into retirement or political obscurity. Those who still are involved are frequently heard wondering out loud if it’s worth the trouble to keep fighting. On a national level, Utah Democrats are a non-entity—they don’t even show up on the radar as a political factor, much less a political force. It’s no wonder national Democrats alternately ignore or insult us, as in the case of the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument, created without even Utahns’ consult. They have nothing to gain from us and nothing to fear from us.

There are several problems with the Democratic Party in Utah. But in my opinion, they are not the problems the Democrats usually cite, i.e. “the three Ms”: Money, Media and Mormons. We got no money, the media won’t make us popular and the Mormons are mean to us. There is no doubt that each of these poses a challenge to the party, but the purpose of a party is to face just such challenges.

If anything, I believe the biggest problem with the Utah Democrats is that things haven’t gotten hard enough for them to get serious about winning. Every political movement in history that ever accomplished anything of significance faced much worse obstacles than those Utah Democrats face today. Do we really think we’re worse off than Southern civil rights workers were in 1960? Is the prejudice against us worse than what the crusaders for women’s voting rights faced? Are Utah Democrats being beaten and shot like the early union leaders who pioneered collective bargaining rights? If my comparisons seem outlandish, what exactly is it that Democrats are complaining about? Are we upset just because it’s not as easy for us as it is for the Republicans? If that’s the only real complaint we have, then we are not Democrats worthy of the courageous heritage of our great party.

Perhaps part of the problem is that, even though Democrats are acutely aware that we have virtually no power in this state, we haven’t really realized the extent of the problem. Utah politics has come to the point where it is no longer merely a question of who gets to appoint committee chairs in the Legislature and who gets their version of school funding passed. What is at stake is no less than our system of free and open democracy. This is not just the problem of Republican political dominance, it is the way in which the extreme right-wing minority is able to call the shots and make the entire Republican Party dance to its tune.

What do the following people have in common: Julius Caesar, Adolph Hitler, Joseph McCarthy, Newt Gingrich and Gayle Ruzicka? Each of them led a small minority faction on the far right that was able to dominate and completely control a Republican government. Here’s how the formula works: First, you form a movement with grandiose ideals—glorious empire, restoration of national pride, protection from communist oppression, family values—whatever. Then you run an intense PR program and accuse anyone who disagrees even slightly with your movement of being guided by Satan. So anyone who stood up to Hitler was an enemy of Germany; anybody who wouldn’t hand over a list of suspects to the Sen. McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee was a stooge of Stalin; any politician who didn’t sign on to the Contract with America was a family-hating liberal. And, of course, anyone who is out of step with the Eagle Forum wants to kill babies, send Janet Reno to take away everyone’s guns, and hire a child molester as your son’s scoutmaster.

You think I’m exaggerating? Some Democratic members of the Utah Legislature recently told me that it is not uncommon for Republican representatives to approach Democrats, pleading, “Will you please speak against this bill? It’s completely wrong but I can’t say anything because Gayle’s pushing it and we can’t speak against her.” Another one is, “I really like your bill. If you can get Gayle to come out for it, you’ve got my vote.”

The comparisons to Hitler and McCarthy are not made casually. Ruzicka is running our Legislature with the same political terrorist tactics that the Führer used in the Reichstag in 1933 and McCarthy used in the U.S. Senate in the 1950s. The fact that Gayle Ruzicka and her far-right gang are morally and politically wrongheaded—and even most Republicans know it—doesn’t make a bit of difference. She doesn’t win because of the rightness of her cause; she wins because she plays the game better. She shows up more often with more troops. Her volunteer organization is better organized. She is better prepared; she gets her message across more powerfully; she works the media more effectively; and she follows through better. She learned the fascist secret of how to use a shrill minority to control the spineless center and form a false majority to stop democracy in its tracks. That’s how she kicks Democrats’ butts on a regular basis.

But what is at stake here is not just Democrats, it’s democracy. Like Hitler, McCarthy and Gingrich, the Utah far right doesn’t want to win political contests, they want to stop the contests from taking place. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the current redistricting battle. The far right doesn’t want to make their case through persuasion and prevail in the hearts and minds of the public. They want all discussion stopped and decisions made by an authoritarian system behind closed doors and then handed to an obedient public for a sustaining vote. This is exactly what the Constitution was written to prevent. This is what religious scriptures—especially Mormon scriptures—warn against. This is the road to totalitarian oligarchy—rule by cliques and gangs. But this is the road Utah is on. The last line of defense is the Democratic Party. God help us.

Real Problems for Democrats

So, if I’m right and the real problems of the Democratic Party in Utah are not the three Ms, what are the real problems? Here are the four big problems I see in the Democratic Party in Utah right now.

No. 1, the Democrats are completely defined by their opposition. The image that reaches the public is the image the Republicans want them to see. When it comes to public relations, Utah Democrats suck.

One of the most common complaints I hear from Democrats is that the Republicans have created a distorted image of what it means to be a Democrat. Because of this false image, the Democrats always start way behind and have to fight uphill.

Of course the Republicans make us look bad. That’s their job. This is American politics, not an intramural softball league. Democrats’ job is to put out our own image of who we are and what we represent. Ed Rollings, the Republican strategist who managed Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign, gives this as a cardinal rule: “Define your candidate [or your party] before your opponent does it for you.” Clearly, Utah Democrats haven’t done their job.

James Carville, the man who was largely responsible for reinventing the image of the Democrats on a national level, wrote a brilliant book called We’re Right, They’re Wrong. It’s a handbook of how to respond to all those stupid, distorted labels the far right propaganda machine has manufactured to make Democrats into demons. It tells how Carville et al. created the concept of the “New Democrat” in a national environment that had defined the party as a joke, how they reversed that image and went on to victory. Many times, I’ve mentioned this book and its value to Utah Democrats in waging their political fight. But almost always I am met with blank stares—they’ve never heard of the book, though it was a No. 1 bestseller and is a case study in how they can win. I can’t imagine putting out the energy and money to run for office as a Democrat without reading this book. I’m sure those on the far right have studied very carefully how Gingrich and gang got their power.

It was Carville who developed the rapid response tactics that were so effective during the 1992 presidential campaign in keeping George Bush constantly on the defensive and never allowing him to define the Democratic candidate. Rapid response is characterized by taking what an opposing camp says and within 24 hours mounting a well-researched, well-crafted and high-impact response. By contrast, Utah Democrats often prepare press conferences that have very little impact once they take place. The phrase I keep hearing Democrats use about their communications is, “We have to be careful!” Careful of what? You concentrate on defense when you’re ahead in the game and have something to lose. We have much more to lose through timid and slow responses than we risk through boldness.

The Democrats’ biggest communication problem is that they haven’t had an on-going rapport with the public. They gear up every two years and from Labor Day to the first week in November, they campaign their hearts out. But during the months between campaigns, the far right keeps up a steady drumbeat, so most elections are lost before they begin. The Democratic Party needs to change its image. Enormous effort is going into defaming Democrats and creating a false image of who we are. Democrats can’t overcome that with a few press conferences and mailers in October of election year.

But we don’t have the money for a long-range communications program, Democrats lament. Look, if I’m working on a race and the party says it can either give $500 to my campaign and all the other similar campaigns or else put that money into a long-range plan to improve the overall image of the party, I’ll say take the money and use it to make it easier for me to raise my own money.

No Inroads with Mormons

Problem No. 2 is that Democrats have failed to make any significant inroads among Mormons. And they can. The argument I always hear is that Democrats can’t attract Mormons because of the party’s policies on abortion and gay rights. I don’t believe it. The Mormon disaffection is not a matter of church doctrine versus party policy; it is purely a question of effective PR on one side and a failure to make a case on the other. We don’t need to hide from these issues.

The LDS church is pro-choice. That’s not my opinion; that’s what Orrin Hatch and many other Republican politicians said last year. When did they say that? Every time a Democrat articulated a stand on abortion that was identical to the policy of the LDS church—that is, that abortion is an option in cases of incest, rape or danger to the life or health of the mother. They were labeled “pro-choice.” Why didn’t Democrats get out the message that virtually every Republican candidate in Utah was advocating outlawing the LDS church’s belief relating to reproductive rights? Don’t blame the media—getting our message out is our job.

What about standing up for the rights of people whose personal sexual practices are considered disgusting, immoral and an assault on the institution of the American family? That description may bring gays to mind, but it also describes the Mormons who founded the state of Utah so they could practice sex according to the dictates of their conscience. Why can’t Democrats remind the Mormons of the time when they were persecuted, killed and driven from their homes because of their sexual practices? Are Mormons going to agree with the party on every issue? The Democrats don’t agree among themselves on these issues. But with skillful communication we can make members of the LDS church see that a difference of opinion on some issues doesn’t make people monsters you could never consider voting for.

The Republicans are out of step with the church on many issues, such as redistricting and guns in church. Redistricting? Darn right! Elder Marlin Jensen, a general authority and official spokesperson for the church said in a 1998 Salt Lake Tribune interview, “Here in Utah, in part I think, it is related to the fact that the Democratic Party has in the last 20 years waned to the point where it really is almost not a factor in our political life right now. And I think there is a feeling that that is not healthy at all—that as a state we suffer in different ways… Locally—and I think that there is a feeling that even nationally as a church—it’s not in our best interest to be known as a one-party church.”

Meanwhile, Reps. Jim Hansen and Chris Cannon are saying they want a redistricting plan that makes sure we speak with “one voice.” So where are the headlines screaming, “Republicans Attack LDS Church”? Blaming it on the media is just making excuses—Democrats haven’t gotten their message out.

When, once again, in the last election cycle a Republican candidate made the assertion that no faithful Mormon could be a Democrat, the Demos, once again, had no effective counter attack. I heard secondhand about a telephone call one Mormon Democratic candidate made to LDS church headquarters. He was reportedly told that the church could make no statements beyond what it had already put out, but why aren’t you guys using what we’ve already given you? It was a fair question. The Marlin Jensen interview was a gift from the LDS church to Democrats and they haven’t made good use of it at all.

Some people have said that there is a split in the Democratic Party on religious lines. I have a different analysis. James Carville—in another book every Democrat should read, All’s Fair—wrote, “In my experience there are two kinds of Democrats: There’s the optimistic ‘we can’ Democrats, and there’s the pessimistic ‘Everybody is stupid but us and we have to remain true-blue; if these dumb people don’t want to follow us, to hell with them; it is better to live nobly than to win crassly’ Democrats. The problem is, they lost consistently and they didn’t win very nobly.”

Sound familiar? Maybe Utah isn’t so unique after all, because the split in Utah is the same as what Carville saw on a national level. On one side there are pragmatic Democrats who want to win and get things done. On the other side are those who are so driven by ideology that they throw away races and issues on principal. If Utah Democrats want to win, they have to choose their battles and build a power base rather than a soapbox. The split is between the Can-Do Democrats and the Soapbox Democrats.

The thing that may surprise some people is that many Democrats don’t want Mormons in the party. I heard about one Democratic House member who wouldn’t support another Democrat for a leadership position not because of any specific policy differences, but because the other representative was a Mormon. On another occasion, a Democratic activist was discouraged from working with the party when other party members told her they had lost their respect for her because she had decided to get married in the LDS Temple. These are the same Democrats who are arguing so loudly for fairness, respect, tolerance and inclusion for all—except Mormons, of course. Democrats who want to exclude Mormons are not only hypocritical bigots, but in a state that is so heavily Mormon, they will always be losers.

The third failing of the Democratic Party in Utah is its failure to nurture campaign management talent. Again, the complaint is that professional campaign management costs too much. But what costs even more is losing all the time. Money is not the problem. A good professional campaign manger will help the campaign raise more money than he costs and will also manage that money in such a way that its effectiveness is increased many times over. As press secretary for Scott Howell’s U.S. Senate campaign last year, I had the opportunity to work with all the major campaigns in the state. Almost without exception, the people managing them were highly intelligent, very professional, and extremely dedicated. But they were all neophytes. Virtually every one of them was fighting a steep learning curve trying to get a handle on a difficult and stressful job while in the middle of the rough and tumble of the campaign season. They were also extremely underpaid, virtual volunteers. The party must work very hard to recruit candidates. It would be a lot easier to get people to put their names on a ballot if you could supply them with a short list of potential staffers with training and experience at winning races.

Because most Democratic candidates are either using inexperienced campaign managers or acting as their own campaign managers, the campaigns suffer. Jim Matheson won not just because he is a popular governor’s son and an excellent candidate. He won because he ran a well-organized campaign that started early, worked hard to raise money, made excellent use of a well-trained staff and hundreds of volunteers, then had the discipline to stay positive and on course when the opposition was flinging truckloads of muck at him. Jim Matheson doesn’t have to be an anomaly; other Democrats can do what he did. It’s not magic or some special dispensation from God; it’s simply good, disciplined campaigning.

The fourth key Democratic weakness is the lack of interesting and innovative policy initiatives. Again, Democrats are letting the Republicans define the game and choose the battleground while they play defense. Having seen the level of talent the party has—and the level is high—I see no reason that some of the most important policy initiatives in the country shouldn’t come out of the Utah Democratic Party. Western issues are growing in importance nationally and we have a unique handle on the West and its problems. Utah Democrats should be leading the pack with new ideas to address these problems in a way that stays true to the needs of our constituents and the ideals of the party.

Perhaps the biggest question facing Democrats right now is who will lead. Certainly some of the party’s current confusion comes from having recently lost many of its leaders. Whether the rank and file loved them or didn’t, they were at least there and you had some measure of predictability. Leadership is more than a title; a leader is a person who you turn to when there’s trouble. If you want to see who the real leader of an organization is, don’t look at the organizational chart, see whose number they dial when they pick up the Trib and the headlines are ugly.

Jan Graham, as the highest ranking elected Democrat in the state, was for years the de facto head of the party. Scott Howell spent many years as minority leader of the State Senate and Dave Jones had the same job in the State House. The recent retirement of these three has left a leadership vacuum that has not yet been filled. Mike Dmitrich, now minority leader in the Senate and Ralph Becker in the House may fill that vacuum, but I still see Democrats reaching for the phone to call Jan and Scott and Dave when they feel the need for a strengthening senior voice. I’m sure there are a lot of Democrats who prefer Becker and Dmitrich to Howell and Jones and they deserve a good chance to prove themselves, but it appears that the party has not yet embraced and fallen in line behind them.

Who Will Lead?

Meghan Holbrook, chairwoman of the Utah Democratic Party, is in an unenviable position. I’ve heard a lot of people try to saddle her with the blame for the party’s decline, but she’s never the one who gets credit for successful campaigns even though she works hard on those successes. The fact is, her position is not powerful enough to have caused the radical decline in the party’s fortunes, and it also isn’t powerful enough to have stopped it. It’s particularly hard to be effective when prominent members of your own party are taking shots at you in public. Democrats may argue about Holbrook’s effectiveness, but no one else has the courage to put his name on the ballot for her thankless job. Since she will be chairing the party for another term, the question that remains is whether the rank and file will fall in and give her enough support to allow her success, or if they will use her as a scapegoat for the problems of the party.

The highest ranking elected Democrat is now Jim Matheson, but it appears unlikely that he will take on the party leadership mantle Jan Graham bore. Jim got elected as a party maverick, not seeking close identification with the Democratic Party. While his popularity with his constituency is growing, that has made him the no. 1 target of Republicans who are mustering enormous resources to take his seat. Jim now is focusing on keeping the right to represent his constituency. While no one will blame him for focusing on his own business rather than the party’s, it doesn’t put him in a strong position to lead the Democrats out of the woods.

Perhaps the best news for the Democrats lies with the names nobody has heard very much yet. There is a youthful and energetic crop of new blood in the party. Some—but not all—of the names to watch for are Ty McCartney, David Litvack and Patricia Jones, all three excited new members of the House. Nichole Adams, the new chairwoman of the Salt Lake County Democratic Party, has a real vision for turning the party around.

Many of the “field grade” campaigners from last year show remarkable potential, though the public hasn’t heard of them yet. Paul Boehm and Michael Wagstaff, two of my colleagues on the Howell campaign, are now entering law school. Their political acumen, their intelligence and their integrity would make them brilliant political assets if they can be attracted back to Utah. James Seaman, who crafted the extraordinary field operations of the Matheson campaign, could be a strong influence on how campaigns are run. Maura Carabello, who managed Donald Dunn’s campaign against Chris Cannon, shows tremendous political talent and is staying active in politics. And don’t discount Donald Dunn himself. Despite a lopsided loss in his congressional race, Donald remains positive, smart and willing to help Democrats in the state.

For every person I’ve met and watched at work, I’m sure there are several more talented young Democrats champing at the bit to win. Whoever takes on the mantle of leadership of the party will have a tough job keeping up with the people he or she will be leading. They won’t stand still for another decade of defeat.

Having said what I have about the party’s problems, some will ask, who is to blame for the sorry state of the Democratic Party? I believe it would be useless and erroneous to try to place blame. All of the Democrats I’ve worked with—including candidates, their staffs, office holders and party leaders—are dedicated, intelligent and remarkably courageous individuals who work at great sacrifice to their careers, their financial welfare and their social lives in difficult and thankless work that gives them little reward. They and their families regularly endure insults, ostracism, harassment and a wide range of treatment that can only be termed as persecution, because of their beliefs. I admire and respect them all and I’m proud to be one of them. I can say categorically that in all my dealings with Democrats in Utah, I haven’t met one that I don’t like personally. But as a combined force in waging political warfare, the track record speaks for itself. This group has been abysmally ineffectual.

The failure of the Utah Democratic Party is not the fault of any one or any few individuals. Don’t blame Meghan Holbrook, Scott Howell, Jim Matheson or Jan Graham or anyone who was supposed to be a savior and didn’t deliver what we wanted. The first step in healing and reviving the party is to come together and admit that the failure of the party is the failure of all Utah Democrats collectively. Until Democrats accept that reality we can never gain the will to change.

The excuses for failure—including identifying a scapegoat—are all invalid. It is not a question of religion. There is nothing inherent in the Democratic Party that should make it unattractive to Mormons in anything near the proportion that recent results show. It is not a question of money—energetic social movements attract money but losers don’t suddenly become glamorous successes by winning the lottery. It is not a question of intelligence, quality of candidates, or—least of all—being in line with the public on the issues. None of these can explain the comatose state of the party.

It is simply a question of will. History is full of examples of those who were outnumbered, under-funded, poorly equipped and had any number of other disadvantages, but because of their conviction and their will to win, they finally prevailed. Do the Democrats have the will to win? Are they so determined that they will do what it takes to define themselves rather than letting the far right continue to define them? Do they have the will to put differences aside and unite to build a real power base? Do they have the will to make strong inroads among the Mormons who constitute 70 percent of the population? Do they have the will to make themselves into better fundraisers and campaigners? Do they have the will to become a wellspring of ideas rather than scavengers picking up their policy initiatives from other states or slapping a Democratic coat of paint on Republican policies?

It’s up to Democrats.