Republican Bob Bennett won’t be running again for his Utah Senate seat, and Congressman Jim Matheson will have to fight for his spot in the House against an opponent whose grassroots campaign has been likened to that of President Barack Obama’s 2008 White House bid. These were just two of the upsets in a midterm year that many are predicting will be a vigorous battle for control of the Legislative Branch.
This year, both conventions were held virtually next door to one another on May 8 at the Salt Palace.
As in last month’s county convention, the morning for the Democrats kicked off with individual caucus meetings, including one for the Utah Stonewall Democrats—the caucus of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and allied Democrats that is the largest group in the party. During the nearly two-hour meeting, candidates from contested and uncontested races alike addressed the crowd in hopes of receiving the caucus’ endorsement. These included Salt Lake City Sherriff Mike Winder, Salt Lake County Attorney General hopeful Sim Gill, openly lesbian Rep. Jackie Biskupski (who is now Utah’s only out gay legislator), and Representatives Rebecca Chavez-Houck and Jennifer Seelig, both of whom have run gay and transgender-rights bills in the Utah Legislature for a number of years.
One of the most hotly contested races at the convention was that for House District 25’s seat. Located in one of the most Democrat-friendly parts of Salt Lake City, the position will be vacated at the end of the year by Rep. Christine Johnson, who has just been hired as Equality South Carolina’s Executive Director. The Stonewall Caucus heard from all four contenders for the seat, including Johnson’s endorsed candidate, business owner and environmentalist John Netto.
“I can promise I will not just run your legislation. I have supported your past legislation,” said Netto, a volunteer for statewide gay and transgender rights group Equality Utah who also works with Utah’s homeless population. “I have been in your parades. I have hoped finance your causes. I have worked to protect your interest and your rights. I love this community, and I am deeply moved by your suffering and the challenges you face. I believe these challenges are those of all our community—the people on the streets and you suffer from marginalization, discrimination and judgment. I will fight against this, and I will fight for hope.”
Challenger Anthony Kaye, an attorney who has worked to secure representation for people who cannot afford lawyers, called the struggle for gay and transgender equality “the civil rights fight of our generation.”
“I want to do my best to make sure Utah isn’t the last state to get on board,” said Kaye. If elected, he promised to reintroduce Johnson’s Anti-discrimination Act Amendments bill, which would extend statewide employment and housing protections to gay and transgender people, and Chavez-Houck’s bill that would reverse a decade-old ban on same-sex couples adopting children. He also promised to be the House sponsor of a bill that would allow same-sex partners to sue in cases of wrongful death, and to urge the Legislature to fund a homeless youth shelter that would also help youth “cast out of their homes because they are gay.”
“If you will support me, I will come to the Stonewall Board and Equality Utah and do what you ask me to do,” said educator Joel Briscoe, who helped found a gay-straight alliance at Bountiful High School. “I will run the legislation you ask. This matters to me, and I know this matters to you. This is an issue of more than law, it’s an issue of treating people with dignity and respect.”
The caucus voted to endorse all candidates save for Jason Henley, who admittedly ran a low-profile campaign. After another round of speeches later in the day, District 25’s delegates did not award any candidate the 60 percent of votes necessary to win a nomination. Briscoe and Kaye, the contenders with the biggest percentages of votes, will square off in a primary on June 22.
In the contested senatorial race, Sam Granato won the Stonewall Caucus’ nomination over former Army recruiter Christopher Stout, despite support for Stout from local gay philanthropist Bruce Bastian.
“The state of Utah continues to get beat up on nationally because of the so-called message bills our Legislature passes,” said Granato’s cousin David Saddlefork addressed the caucus in Granato’s stead. “In 2010 we have an excellent opportunity to send a message across this country that Utah voters are not tied into crazy Republican rhetoric.” Granato’s campaign, he added, wanted to get the vote of those disillusioned by Republican politics “to make a statement to this country that Utah is going to turn progressive, towards equal rights, to taking care of all our people.”
Granato, who had been participating in that morning’s Susan G. Komen Salt Lake City Race for the Cure , which benefits breast cancer research and awareness, appeared near the end of the caucus to give his remarks.
The most publicized race of the day, however, was that between Congressman Jim Matheson and openly lesbian challenger Claudia Wright, both of whom appeared before the Stonewall Caucus to seek their nomination.
In his remarks, Matheson acknowledged that his 2010 voting record had put him at odds with many Utah Democrats. He stressed, however, his support for the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell, which prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. He also reminded the caucus that he is the only Utah Congressman to support several gay rights issues, and that Democrats are facing significant Republican challenges in the midterm election.
“I’ve had a good dialogue with this caucus for many years,” he said. “I’m proud of the things we’ve been able to work on together.”
“I think you all realize, of course, that I would work for the extension of rights to the community that should never have been denied them in the first place,” said Wright, a retired high school civics and women’s studies teacher. Addressing criticisms that she is not an electable candidate, Wright reminded the caucus that Utah had the lowest voter turnout in the nation in 2008.
“This election belongs to whoever can ever get voters out to vote, whether it’s a Democrat, a Republican or an independent, she said. Wright also noted that her campaign would put such issues as election reform, healthcare reform and “holdng Wallstreet accountable” front and center.
The Stonewall Caucus voted overwhelmingly to endorse Wright. In doing so, many delegates expressed frustration at Matheson for not opposing the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
After the caucus meetings, the senate and congressional candidates addressed the convention at large. While Granato won the nomination with 77.5 percent of delegates’ votes, Matheson and Wright divided the convention, winning 55 and 45 percent of votes, respectively. Upon the announcement that both would face off in a June 22 primary, Wright’s supporters erupted in cheers.
Wright also received the endorsement of the African-American, Progressive and Environmental Caucuses. The Hispanic and Labor Caucus did not endorse either candidate.
The Stonewall Caucus voted unanimously to endorse all non-contested elections, which included Winder’s campaign as well as Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon’s gubernatorial bid and the campaign of former Republican Karen Hyer, who is running for Congressional District 3’s seat.
At the opposite end of the Salt Palace, the State Republican Convention was in full swing and another upset in the Congressional election was emerging. Four-term Senator Bob Bennett was ousted by newcomers Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater, who will also face off in a primary on June 22.
The Utah Log Cabin Republicans, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender-friendly caucus, did not endorse any candidates in the Senate race.
“There was a fairly large division among our own caucus there,” said James Humphreys, LCR’s Vice President. He noted, however, that Bridgewater captured 50 percent of the membership’s vote in a straw poll conducted after an April 21 debate sponsored by the caucus, and at which six of the eight candidates, or their representatives, were present.
“We chose, given how divisive this race was in the state, to withhold a formal nomination,” Humphreys explained. But, he added: “There are a couple candidates who are a lot more palpable for this particular time in history.”
Earlier this month, LCR announced that it would endorse Gov. Gary Herbert’s campaign.
“Our experience is that this administration has a warm open door feeling and is willing to discuss a wide range of issues including those issues that affect our GLBT community,” said president Mel Nimer in a statement. “They have been earnest in finding common solutions for our goals despite some of our differences. Both Governor Herbert and Lt. Governor Bell understand that they represent all Utahans [sic]. That understanding has tempered them with a compassion and understanding that many extremists in both of our major parties seem to lack. Their example is one many would do well to learn from. As conservatives there is much more that unites us than divides us. Gary and Greg welcome this and do not have a litmus test to prove one’s conservative credentials and this, in itself, is refreshing given the current political climate. “
Additionally, Humphreys said that a large percentage of convention attendees have been supportive of LCR’s goals, which include gay and transgender rights, fiscal conservatism and an overall position that many have described as moderate Republican.
“We have literally over 200 state delegates now who support our causes, and we’ve talked with a lot of people who completely agree with our philosophies now.”
As evidence of this, Nimer mentioned that the delegates who approached the LCR table either asked for information, expressed support for the caucus and for gay rights, or engaged in polite — if sometimes strident — debate. Such a climate, he noted, was a far cry from that in 2008, when one delegate approached LCR’s table and said he wished gay Republicans “would tie rocks around your necks and jump in a lake.”
Both parties saw record-breaking participation by delegates this year, including many who had been elected as state, county or precinct delegates for the first time.