Politics • Democratic caucus is small, but incoming state senator says he will make sure its voice is heard.
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As Utah Democratic Party chairman, Jim Dabakis has blasted Republicans for scheming behind closed doors, chastised them for arrogance and threatened to sue them over a partisan redistricting process.
Next month, Dabakis will become a colleague to the cabal, replacing Salt Lake County Mayor-elect Ben McAdams in the state Senate, but he says his role as the party's standard bearer won't change, and neither will his style speaking truth to power, chastising when necessary and using the new pulpit to offer a contrast to voters.
"My goal remains the same: Change the stage to get the things done that I think Democrats want done," said Dabakis, pointing to education, air quality and the environment as top priorities. "All of that comes down to one thing, and that is getting more Democrats elected."
Which raises the key question for the upcoming legislative session: Can Dabakis rock the boat without capsizing it?
Ask Republican senators what they think of their newest colleague and many get an expression on their face that is somewhere between a smirk and a wince.
And there's an acknowledgment that Dabakis could cut a different path from the few other Democrats, particularly those in the Senate, who are more apt to play ball than risk irritating the Republican supermajority.
"We've had screamers and hollerers before," said Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal.
"I think he'll be welcomed cautiously," said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. "He's going to be part of the body. We get that. I don't think we're going to stick a dunce cap on his head and make him stand in the corner. … At the same time, I think people are going to be naturally leery of his motives."
Dabakis says Salt Lake City's Senate District 2 is perhaps the most reliably liberal district in the state, and he believes it's his job to articulate the views of constituents in the area. The delegates who elected him had an option to pick someone who, Dabakis said, "doesn't have a big mouth" and is more a low-key dealmaker in outgoing Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, but they opted for the more outspoken of the two.
The reason, he believes, is that with just five Democrats in the 29-member Senate, Republicans don't need the Democrats' votes and don't want their input.
"Our ability to affect policy was greatly limited because the Republicans can just go into caucus, decide everything, come out and they make the laws," he said. "[Democrats] could all just go to Wendover and [Republicans] could do whatever they want."
But by using his new platform to draw distinctions between the two parties, he believes he can rally public support to the Democratic viewpoints.
On a current proposal to more than double the sales tax on food, he says Democrats go beyond strong opposition to raising the harshest, most regressive tax; they believe it should be eliminated.
People are familiar with the education statistics in Utah last among states in per-pupil funding, largest class sizes in the country, test scores lagging and graduation rates falling, and, most alarming, he says, 43 percent of Latino high-school students won't graduate.
"This is a time bomb. This is a 9-1-1 emergency in our culture and our society," he said, in his typical disdainful-of-niceties style. "It's a catastrophe, and I don't hear that kind of talk."
One of his first bills would require the Legislature to automatically fund the growth in student enrollment, adding it to the base budget before lawmakers do anything else. He is working on another bill that he hopes will modernize Utah's open-records laws, which he says are a "relic of bureaucratic morass," and create more transparency for the public.
He plans to oppose an effort by the state to take control of 30 million acres of federal land, which he considers a gimmick and "political stunt." And, he says, he will stand up for some ideas that aren't even popular in his own party, like defending gay marriage and a woman's right to choose to have an abortion.
"The most important thing I want to do in the Legislature is point out to the Utah public: This is what Democrats believe and this is what Republicans believe," he said.
Weiler said freshmen senators, including himself, typically aren't all that influential. But Dabakis' effectiveness, in particular, will likely hinge on how he behaves.
"If he employs that same bomb-throwing type strategy as a senator, we know that will not serve him well," Weiler said. "I think it's going to be more difficult for him than he anticipates."
Curtis Haring, a delegate in Senate District 2, said he was torn between supporting Dabakis and outgoing Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon to fill the new post, a choice between two very different styles.
"It's kind of a mixed bag, as far as Jim's personality. What I mean by that is he's very bombastic and very outgoing. Sometimes it felt like it was the perfect thing, we needed someone to shake things up," Haring said.
But Haring said he was also concerned that Dabakis' "aggressiveness" might harm his ability to pass legislation and work behind-the-scenes. In the end, Haring expects the new senator will be able to moderate some Republican bills and advance the Democratic agenda, even if he doesn't pass a lot of bills.
"If you measure it by his bills [passed], I don't think he's going to be an effective senator, but I don't think that's the only measure," Haring said.
Dabakis says if his fellow senators only know him as a fire-breather, they don't know the whole person.
Dabakis who is gay and founded Equality Utah and The Pride Center said he got involved in politics in 2009, when he helped cut a deal with Salt Lake City officials and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to pass an ordinance banning housing and employment discrimination against gay residents. The model has now been adopted by 15 local governments.
Under his tenure as state Democratic chairman, Dabakis, a BYU graduate, the party has stepped up its outreach to Utah Mormons.
He has been a successful businessman, an art collector and a radio host. He also founded non-profit organizations. He says he likes all of the Republicans he has met in politics, is friends with many and would love to have Gov. Gary Herbert as a neighbor.
"I really do see my personality as a peacemaker," he said. "I have been off at war for the last couple of years and as a general I have a different view than I had. I always pictured myself as Nelson Mandela and I turned out to be [Gen. George] Patton, so I hope to be able to navigate somewhere [in between]."
Dabakis not only intends to stay on as party chairman as he takes his Senate seat, but intends to run for a second term next summer. "I see the chair and elected official jobs as hand in glove," he said.
Last year, Dabakis attended a Republican fundraiser and bid on and won a chance to spend the day shadowing Senate President Michael Waddoups. Dabakis jokes that he decided to run when he saw how nice senators offices are.
"I tried to teach him how to be a senator," said Waddoups, who is retiring at the end of this term. "Now the proof will be how he acts."