With a midterm elections coming this November, several of Utah’s gay and transgender-friendly activist and political groups have been encouraging gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to involve themselves in the political process by becoming precinct, state and county delegates.
While much has been written about the process of becoming a delegate, little has been said about the experience of being one. To remedy that, three delegates, one Republican and two Democrat, sat down with QSaltLake to explain the ins and outs of holding this vital grassroots office.
To recap, Utah is one of only three states with a delegate system. Under this system, legislative districts are divided up into small pieces called precincts, which can often be just a few neighborhoods large. Depending on its size, each precinct has one or two delegates from each of the state’s two main political parties. Each election year, these delegates come together in a mass meeting to determine their party’s candidates for that district’s Senate and House seats. This means that delegates have a huge say in who gets to make laws on Capitol Hill — and whether or not those lawmakers are gay and transgender-friendly.
To illustrate how powerful delegates are, one need only return to 2008, when a single delegate’s vote allowed Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, to run for re-election, despite Buttars’ repeated anti-gay remarks and controversy over a statement he made on the Senate floor that many interpreted as racist.
“If we’d had 10 [pro-gay] people there, we wouldn’t be putting up with this nonsense,” Utah Log Cabin Republicans president Mel Nimer said of the issue, in a previous article on the delegate process.
“I’ve always been a little bit politically active,” said Gordon Storrs, the former president of Utah’s gay-friendly Log Cabin Republicans, who ran for a position in the Utah Senate (and lost) in the same year Buttars retained his seat in Senate District 10. Before coming out, he was also a Republican delegate to the party’s state and county conventions, and he has also served as a precinct delegate.
But first, he had to get elected. Every two years, said Storrs, those who are interested in becoming delegates must attend precinct meetings, the addresses of which can be found by contacting the state or country offices of either the Democratic or Republican Party. When attending these meetings, said Storrs, each candidate for delegacy must make a speech about why he or she would be the best choice for office. To win the office, he encouraged hopefuls to bring neighbors and friends who live in their precinct (and who are registered members of either political party) to vote for them. Delegates may also run for other positions at this time, including that of precinct chair.
“You help make decisions and help vote on changes to the bylaws in the county platform,” he said of this office. “So you can make a difference or at least be there to speak up if something of interest comes along.” In contrast, he added, a precinct chair must attend four meetings each year.
“A lot of precincts, probably 20–30 percent, have no chairs and no one comes to the meetings,” he added. “So those who come can nominate themselves to be chair.”
Precinct delegates must attend their district nominating convention during election years, during which they elect their party’s candidate for that district. To win nomination, a candidate must win 60 percent of delegates’ votes. If no one candidate gets this many, a primary is then held. In non-election years, they must attend a meeting where party business is handled, such as electing precinct officers and selecting delegates for county and state conventions where gubernatorial candidates are elected.
In addition to the precinct position, Republican delegates can also run for the offices of state and county delegate, both of which require two meetings per year: the annual nominating convention and an organizing convention where decisions are made about such things as the party’s platform on state and county levels.
Although the time commitment for precinct delegates is relatively small, Democratic precinct delegate Todd Bennett said that sometimes delegates can be called together for unforeseen reasons.
“Unexpected things can happen, like if your Representative or Senator resigns like Scott McCoy did [last year],” he said. “It’s the delegates who lived in his district that got together and basically elected his replacement.”
What Else Do Delegate Do?
Although Storrs said that some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender delegate hopefuls might want to keep their sexuality under wraps until after their election depending on their precinct’s openness to gay people, he said that he has experienced no backlash as an openly gay Republican delegate.
“You’re there and you’re seen,” he said. “Like with me, everyone knows who I am. People treat you nicely and generally don’t say unkind things when you’re in the room.”
“Absolutely everyone is respectful,” Bennett agreed. “I’ve really never experienced any negative backlash from anybody at all towards anybody else, especially as the Democrats in Utah are very supportive [of gay and transgender people].”
“In Senate District 2 at least, there are probably more GLBT delegates than straight allies,” said Democratic precinct delegate Brandon Daniels. This fact, he said, played a big role in the election of McCoy’s replacement, Ben McAdams, last December. Like many delegates, Daniels interviewed all contenders for the office. And when speaking to McAdams, who is straight, at the delegate meeting, he said he emphasized that McAdams would have to promise make gay rights issues a priority if he wanted Daniels’ vote.
“I made sue that Ben was aware that he still had to represent that percentage of [the district’s’ population as Scott did,” he recalled. “I said look over that crowd of delegates. An amazing number of persons are GLBT individuals or allies.”
“There were more gays there than Friday night at the bar,” he joked.
Likewise, Storrs said that he struck up a friendship with former Gov. Jon Huntsman as a delegate and then as a member of the governor’s transition team. As an out gay delegates, Storrs said that he and other LCR delegates were able to talk to Huntsman about a number of gay rights issues.
“The last conversation we had before he talked about his position [in favor of] civil unions was where I suggested that he had the bully pulpit, and if he shared his feelings publicly that he could save a life,” he said. “For some kid whose having trouble, just knowing that there’s someone in a high place who recognized the importance of gay people [could be beneficial].”
“And the next thing I knew, he came out in favor of civil unions,” Storrs continued. And while he does not know if that conversation had anything to do with the governor’s support, Storrs said that conversations like the one he and Huntsman had can change minds and serve as “a way to create lasting change.”
“If I want to get in touch with Sen. McAdams or Rep. [Jackie] Biskupski, it helps that I’m a delegate,” Daniels agreed. “They’re going to spend more time with me.” [Elected officials] are more inclined to return your phone calls because they know at the end of they day that they’re reliant on my vote to get them through” especially if they’re running in a contested election.
For more information about becoming a delegate, attend Equality Utah’s next delegate training workshop. It will be held March 15 at the Salt Lake County Complex, 2001 S. State St. from 6–8 p.m.