Equality Utah Offers 2008 Legislative Training

As it does every election year, local gay rights group Equality Utah offered its popular delegate training session to teach gay-affirming Utahns what they can do to get candidates who share their views elected. 

This year, the grass roots group held the two hour session at the Salt Lake County building. Equality Utah’s Executive Director Mike Thompson opened the morning by telling the 40 attendees that the climate on Capitol Hill has become more positive towards the gay community in the past two years, thanks in part to his group’s efforts. He added, however, that anti-gay candidates are still being elected, thanks in part to the efforts of delegates from such groups as the conservative Utah Eagle Forum.

“Who we bump up against most in the legislature is conservative legislators who get picked in their party caucuses and elected,” he said.

In order to shift the balance of power in the legislature, Thompson said that more gay-friendly delegates need to get elected in their local caucuses. To illustrate how these delegates can help elect a progressive legislator, Thompson then turned the floor over to Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, who made local headlines for her efforts this session to pass a bill lifting the 2000 ban on gay couples adopting children.

After Ralph Becker left his seat in the House after winning the Salt Lake City mayoral election, Chavez-Houck said she decided she wanted to take his place. But to do so she had to win the votes of the 85 delegates (some representing areas as small as a few streets) in her legislative district. In cases like this, she explained, the delegates in a district convene, listen to all who are interested in running for the seat, choose one and send their recommendation to the governor.

“I had to become a quick study in what the important issues to my constituents were,” Chavez-Houck said. Next, she called each of the delegates to discuss her experience with and views on these issues, which included immigrant rights, reproductive freedom, renewable energy, animal rights and gay rights. In the end, the delegates chose her to be their Representative.

Although being a delegate requires only a few hours’ work each election year (in attending precinct, country and state conventions), Chavez-Houck told the audience to remember that being a delegate is nevertheless a commitment.

“It’s not just being there at the convention,” she said. “You have to be in touch to see what your neighbors need.”

Equality Utah board member and former legislative candidate Jan Lovett and longtime activist Lisa Allcott echoed this sentiment in the portion of the morning dedicated to delegate training. But they stressed that being a delegate is also fun and rewarding.

The women then explained the process of being elected as a delegate. First, they told people to be aware of their party’s rules about who can run for this position. The Republican Party, for example, requires all who run to be registered Republicans while the Democratic Party just asks that potential delegates agree with their state platform. Smaller parties like the Constitution Party and the Green Party also hold caucuses and have their own rules for eligibility. Further, all potential delegates must be at least 18 years old, a Utah resident for 30 days before the meeting, and must bring a photo ID when they attend their precinct caucus, which is where delegate election happens. Precincts, Alcott explained, are divided up by population, and one’s precinct number can be found on the back of his or her voter registration card. In a pinch, the county party chair can help a potential delegate determine his or her precinct.

When attending the precinct meeting, Lovett said potential delegates should be willing to have conversations about the skills they can bring to the office and not to worry if those skills don’t include prior political experience.

“What do you do at work all day, in your home or in any organization you belong to?” Lovett asked.

Allcott and Lovett also told potential delegates not to take anything for granted, including the possibility that they may be the only one to show up to the caucus and thus run unopposed. Although the delegate positions in some precincts are less contested than in others, Lovett explained that interest in being a delegate rises during presidential election years.

“I’d go into your precinct meeting with the mindset that there’s one slot and you’ve got to compete for it,” she said.

“Assume it’ll be well-attended,” Allcott added. She also advised potential delegates to stay for the entire convention, because potential candidates may show up late, and to ask their friends, family and neighbors to come to the convention to vote for them.

“You’re running a mini-campaign for yourself,” she said. “Walk through the neighborhood, get a precinct map and visit houses in that map.”

For delegates who don’t win, Lovett advised signing up to be an alternate delegate. If a delegate is unable to attend the county primary convention where delegates choose candidates for office, an alternate will be called to fill in.

Next, a panel of three current and former delegates discussed their experiences. Christy Gleave, now the Chair of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office of Diversity, said that she felt intimidate when she showed up to her first precinct caucus.

“But then I found no one else really knows what they’re doing either,” she laughed.  When she discovered this, Gleave said she just stood up and “kind of took charge” by introducing herself

Tracie Morrison told potential delegates not to worry about their sexual orientation working against them, but not to make it a point either.

“I don’t advertise my outness, but if someone asks I tell them, she said. “I don’t say this is who I am up front because I want to get their vote.”

“Me, I don’t have a choice,” Gleave joked.

“It’s not about being gay or not, it’s about being who you are,” said Matthew Lyon, a former Republican delegate from Weber County who later switched to the Democratic Party. “I’d assume the LGBT community has other issues they find important, too. I don’t think you have to tell someone you’re straight or gay, just about the totality of what you need.”

Precinct meetings for the Republican and Democratic Parties will be held Wednesday, March 25. To find your precinct, visit equalityutah.org/NeighborhoodMeetings.html.

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