A few days ago, Dan Burton over at Publis Online asked me to write a short piece about Jim Dabakis’ recent victory. Now that it has been published, I felt I would share my thoughts with you.
Being a Democratic delegate in Senate District 2, I (along with 129 other delegates who voted in the special election this past Saturday) had the responsibility of choosing the next senator to represent Downtown and Avenues neighborhoods, replacing Salt Lake County Mayor Elect Ben McAdams. The field was a talented one: Robert Comstock – longtime Democratic activist and teacher; outgoing state representative Brian Doughty; former Salt Lake County Councilwoman, Jenny Wilson; current Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon; and current Utah Democratic Party Chair Jim Dabakis.
With little exceptions, each candidate was similar on the issues. All spoke for better education funding, expanding the tax base, improving the environment, expanding the rights of the LGBT community, and liberalizing liquor laws – just to name a few. Because of this, the choice of each delegate came down to two main factors: the personality of the candidate and what role Senate District 2 plays as a sounding board for the Utah Democratic Party.
The first point is a common theme among just about every election, but the second one is a unique one for Democrats in Utah. Senate District 2 is arguably the safest senate seat in the state. No matter how Republicans may try to slice and dice the area up during redistricting, the math points to the fact that the area will vote Democrat. This means that whoever runs in the area can, in theory, propose the most liberal of bills without fear of the electorate – indeed, they run a risk of not being reelected in the area if they are too moderate. The seat then serves as a soundboard for the Utah Democratic Party, and the senator from the district can show the rest of the state what a Democratic (note the big “D”) government could look like.
So, the question each delegate had to ask was: “What do I want my party to look like?” On one hand, you have the pragmatic go-along-to-get-along candidates such as Wilson and Corroon. On the other you have the big and boisterous loud and proud Democrats such as Comstock, Dabakis, and, to a lesser extent, Doughty. One approach, so the theory goes, leads to greater legislative success; the other, so it is felt, allows (at the very least) one senator the opportunity to continually and consistently attack the Republican message on the hill.
For those of you paying attention, you know that the latter mode of thought won with the narrow victory of Jim Dabakis over Peter Corroon. Senate 2 Democrats signaled that they, at the very least, are tired of the status quo and they no longer wish to be treated as an afterthought…Dabakis has publicly said that he intends to “shame” Republicans for their woeful track record on education and that he would “travel from Logan to St. George” if he had to, in order to make sure all voters are aware of how Republicans truly treat the people.
Obviously this is a departure from outgoing Senator Ben McAdams who, during his run for Salt Lake County Mayor, pointed to his success working with all political affiliations – including those pesky Republicans – in order to pass legislation, both as a senator and while working for the Salt Lake City Mayors office.
Interestingly, on the day of the election, Dabakis started to step back his “bomb throwing” rhetoric, appealing to moderates with his working class roots. During his first speech among the delegates, with a mist in his eye, he explained why he was a Democrat: the dignity of labor, the struggle for equality, and the desire for a better tomorrow, were all motifs in his delivery. Far from the attack dog, Dabakis’s final plea before the delegates cast their vote was one of humility and loyalty.
And this raises an interesting question: What will Senator Dabakis look like?
Judging by his history, Dabakis will be able to walk a fine line between actively attacking ideas and policy, but not necessarily the people proposing them. This will make for an interesting dynamic that makes us have to ask what success will look like for Senator Dabakis. Most assuredly Dabakis will have a hard time passing legislation that stays anywhere left of center – not only because of the makeup of the Utah State Legislature on the whole, but also because Dabakis’ political foils will have little interest in advancing the very obvious ideologies of the Utah Democratic Party.
What is interesting is that I can also see Dabakis playing a key role behind the scenes. Dabakis has many key relationships with lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, and has the ability to translate liberal ideas into moderate legislation – legislation that can easily get support from all members of the legislature.
So, in short, Dabakis will see little to no success in running the “red meat” bills his district demands, but he could easily be a consensus builder behind the scenes if he plays his cards right. In reality only time will tell.
Keep an eye on Dabakis during this session, and also note the overall tone of the Senate. Dabakis will be able to work the system from day one. In the end, a successful Senator Dabakis may be one that can call legislators out in front of the media in the morning and then sit down with them for dinner at night.