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McEntee: Dem boss and state senator? Dabakis can do both jobs

Published December 4, 2012 9:42 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

One thing you can say about Jim Dabakis, is he never misses a chance to raise his voice — and wit — to defend his Democratic Party and skewer Republicans when he feels they deserve it.

Dabakis, newly elected by his peers to be the next state senator for District 2, will keep his job as chairman of the Utah Democratic Party. It's not without precedent. Democrat Dave Jones served in the Utah House and as party boss in the 1990s, and Republican Craig Moody did the same in the '80s.

Given Dabakis' history — talk show host, art collector and seller, businessman, co-founder of the Utah Pride Center and Equality Utah and fervent opponent of California's anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 — he has proven himself to be a savvy multitasker who'll do just fine on Capitol Hill.

Before his election Saturday, he described himself as a "peacemaker, not a bomb thrower." That may be true, but he certainly knows how to fling a zinger when so inclined. Last year, for instance, he asked House Speaker Becky Lockhart what she and her fellow Republicans were doing in closed caucus during the fraught political redistricting session.

Were you in there singing Broadway songs? he asked.

Dabakis brings a shrewd political mind to his work, publicly and privately. He's a negotiator, able to bring together disparate people in a common cause. That's what he did with LGBT activists and LDS Church representatives, who came to agree on the worth of Salt Lake City ordinances protecting gay people from workplace and housing discrimination. Since then, a number of Utah cities and counties have adopted such ordinances.

This year, Dabakis launched a new Democratic caucus, LDS Dems, to help his party chip away at the hold the GOP has on Utah Mormons. The group even made something of a splash at this year's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Dabakis had been an LDS convert who no longer affiliates with the faith but understands it deeply.

Still, the line Dabakis will walk as party boss and state senator could be tricky.

"There will be an interesting tension between trying to be an honest broker between some of the different wings and factions of the party … and making judgments in voting on legislation," says Kelly Patterson, a political scientist at Brigham Young University.

That's true. But Dabakis has the personality and skills to wear two political hats, says Joe Hatch, a former Salt Lake County councilman and county Democratic chairman (although he didn't do both jobs at the same time).

For starters, Dabakis will be one of only five Democrats in the 29-member Senate, where Republicans "can do anything they want," Hatch says. Dabakis will be "in the penalty box the moment he's sworn in. Once he's accepted that lot, he can appropriately represent his district."

Dabakis already has excoriated the idea of raising food taxes, by any measure a regressive tax that hurts the poor far more than the well-off.

That's the kind of conviction he'll will bring to the Senate and to his sprawling and diverse District 2. And I have no doubt that when the Republicans throw their weight around, he'll be among the first to fight back.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter: @pegmcentee.






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