As many Utahns know, Salt Lake City is becoming decidedly more gay and transgender-friendly even if the state legislature is dragging its feet on bills that would offer such citizens more legal protections.
So is Salt Lake County, for that matter. This year, the county’s council voted to extend health care benefits to the same-sex partners of county employees. Democratic mayor Peter Corroon enthusiastically supported the vote and just as enthusiastically stood behind statewide gay rights group Equality Utah’s move to get local businesses to support its Common Ground Initiative. During a February press conference for this initiative at Café Oasis, Corroon also unveiled the county’s new logo—which now features the word “diversity.”
As the openly gay chair of the county’s Democratic Party, Weston Clark is now part of the mayor’s vision for a more diverse, more inclusive county. Earlier this month, Clark again won the position at the Party’s convention, where he ran unopposed.
“It’s not the easiest job in the world,” Clark remarked, noting that chairing the party is “an unpaid super volunteer position. “It’s not one people readily seek if someone’s willing to do it and does a good job.”
Clark has been doing a good job in the position since 2008, when his predecessor resigned just before that year’s convention. Then vice chair of the party, Clark stepped up as acting chairman and into a whirlwind of excitement. The Clinton/Obama race for the Democratic Presidential Nomination was heating up and with it, several local Democratic campaigns. For the first time in years, Clark said he felt that his party “had a chance across the board.”
As acting chairman, Clark had to coordinate and manage several “moving parts in the county,” including over thirty Democrats contending for positions from mayor to legislator. And then there was the fact that Barack Obama had opened up a campaign office in the capitol.
“I don’t even know when the last time was that that happened,” said Clark. Soon he found himself working with Utah for Obama and individual campaigns towards a common goal: to see more Democrats elected across the board.
“It’s a hard job,” he said. “There’s a lot of expectations that are on the party and the leader of the party, and not a lot of resources to fulfill those expectations,” including not just money but volunteer hours.
“I enjoyed it and thrived on it,” he continued. “It was very enjoyable to see the results of our work and see we were successful.”
These results, as most know, were as equally across the board as Clark’s efforts. In November, Obama won a mandate and many county positions shifted from red to blue, including the majority of the council. Pleased with this success and feeling that he had learned a lot during the election, Clark then decided to run for a full term as chairman in order to “take more ownership of the process.” Although a few other Democrats had voiced interest in seeking the position, Clark said they deferred to him when he announced his intentions. (Elections for party positions are held during odd-numbered years — that is, non-election years.)
So far, Clark said that his sexual orientation has not been an issue to any of the Democrats he serves.
“The Democratic Party is generally so welcoming of diversity that within the party I really haven’t experienced any problem at all,” he said. “Not even once have I been confronted by somebody.”
Still, even within the so-called party of inclusion, Clark said there are Democrats who are not “fully understanding or accepting of gay people.” And these, said Clark, are Democrats with whom he endeavors to find common ground. For example, he discussed the case of a precinct officer who emailed him expressing upset over what she saw as the party’s support for gay marriage.
“She was really offended and made remarks to gays being immoral,” said Clark, who noted that he drafted a lengthy response which he ended up not sending.
“It wouldn’t have been beneficial to write her back and condemn what she had said,” he explained. “That was hard to do because prior to being in the party I considered myself a pretty strong, politically-minded activist. Equality and gay rights was one of my personal issues and something I believed in [deeply].” And while these issues are still important to him as a gay man and a Democrat, Clark notes that they must “step to the side a little” in order to find agreement. In this sense, he favors Equality Utah and Obama’s approach to politics.
“As Democrat, especially in Utah, we have to be accepting of a larger tent,” he said. “While some people may not completely agree with me on gay rights, they probably do agree with me on 95 percent of other Democratic issues. We have to take baby steps if gonna make any movement in this state. We have to listen and work with each other to come up with something that works but still includes our ideals … It’s a very gray area to walk in.”
But what isn’t gray at all for Clark is the mid-term elections in 2010. His biggest fear, he said, is that Democrats in Utah and across the nation will lose their hard-won gains in the face of a continually slumping economy and fall-out from the Bush administration.
“The American public is generally very impatient, and if change isn’t happening immediately, there’s a political price to pay for that,” he explained. “I think Obama’s going a good job in saying change won’t come immediately, that it’s a process and it’ll take awhile to see an effect, and I’m hoping he’s doing enough. So far it seems to be that way. Looking at the polls people are still loving Obama … but there’s always a bit of a backlash. A lot of the time it’s who’s most excited to get out and vote, and usually the backlash is the most excited.”
While Clark is currently the only gay officer in the Salt Lake County Democratic Party, former Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire emperor Alan Anderson also ran for treasurer. Anderson, however, lost to Holly Martak. Clark said that he is hopeful Anderson will run again, or at least remain active as a volunteer in the party.