The other guys

The Herald Journal - 10.10.04

The woman who answered the door at a brick Center Street rambler just east of Main in Smithfield looked like the type of voter he wanted to meet -- short hair, well dressed, a bit past middle age and listed as "undeclared" on registration rolls.

On the porch, Steve Thompson introduced himself and said he was going door to door campaigning. He told her he was running for the 1st District Congressional seat, and then -- perhaps optimistically, perhaps a bit tongue in cheek -- he added with a smile, "as a Democrat, and that's a good thing around here."

The woman, holding her screen door open with one arm, shot a confused look at Thompson. Then, patiently, as if correcting a misinformed child, she responded, "Oh, I don't think so."

Thompson received better reactions during an afternoon of canvassing Smithfield homes -- a man a few doors down told him, "You're actually a Democrat, and I appreciate that" -- but Thompson said there have also been worse. Like the time a long-haired, bearded man in Ogden threw campaign material back in Thompson's face after hearing the word "Democrat" and said sternly, according to Thompson, "That's all I need to know."

Unfortunately for most Cache County Democratic candidates, the latter response is more common, whether voiced or not. And the facts back that statement up.

The only local Democrat currently in office is Brian Chambers of the Cache County Council (other Democrats hold nonpartisan elected offices). And a state legislator from the party hasn't been elected since Frank Prante represented District 4 from 1987 until 1990.

Republican candidates talk about competitive races and compliment their opponents in interviews. However, several admitted they don't need to spend time fund-raising or campaigning in a community where one-third of the more than 61,000 registered voters are registered Republicans and less than 3,000 are Democrats. Underlying attitudes toward Democrats have taken the form of vandalism to John Kerry signs this fall and people throwing candy back at the Cache Democrats' float during local parades.

"It was grown people, too," said Cache Democrats Chairman Reid Pearce, "not just kids."

Pearce said Cache Valley wasn't always this way. When he was a young man in Cornish, the town was home to a healthy mix of Democrats, Republicans and others in the middle of the spectrum.

"It didn't seem to be such a sin to be a Democrat," Pearce said, reflecting on the evolution to an overwhelming Republican majority in Cache County and Utah. "There's been a tremendous amount of pressure on the Republican people to exclude Democrats. It's not like you can be a Democrat as you once could."

Several longtime Democrats said party members live with stereotypes. They're presumed to be pro-choicers, tax-and-spend liberals, non-Mormons or out-of-towners. However prevalent or true those stereotypes may be, Democratic candidates say they're unfair.

"I think it's fun being a Democrat in Cache County," said Matt Everett, a Logan resident and current candidate for Senate District 25. "You know, just because I'm a Democrat doesn't mean I believe everything in the national party's platform."

Personal explanations of policy like Everett's are generally the only way for Democrats to gain footholds in partisan races. Since perceived party platforms and local stereotypes don't allow for easy answers from Democrats, supporters said it's up to the party to promote candidates who are moderate and mainstream.

"The Democratic values are really seamlessly woven into the predominant culture of the state," said Gina Wickwar, an active Cache Valley Democrat for nearly 20 years. "We're starting to do (express) that; we're making inroads."

Wickwar said the most important issues to the local party are things like working wages, children's safety, education and environmental stewardship. She said the challenge for Utah Democrats, whom she termed a "special breed" because of the conservative culture in the state, is to push those issues and candidates' personalities to the fore.

"The success that we have had are because the people are beyond party labels," said Wickwar, citing the success of candidates like Chambers, a lifelong Smithfield resident and longtime educator at Sky View High School and Cedar Ridge Middle School. "They've seen the Democratic candidate as a real person."

But the fact is, success stories are few.

Some local Democratic candidates joined races simply to have a name opposite the Republican on the ballot. Several entered only after being asked by state party representatives just before the filing deadline. Thompson said fund-raising for his race against Rob Bishop has been tougher than for a nonpartisan city council race -- he has been elected twice in Logan -- because Democratic money must be spread among more candidates, and some donors chose not to give because names would be publicly affiliated with the party on disclosure forms.

"You might say there's a little fear factor," Pearce said of locals going on record as Democrats.

However, most who run for office do so proudly.

River Heights Mayor Vic Jensen was a late entry to the race for Utah House of Representatives District 5. He wants to follow in his father's footsteps as a "staunch Democrat" and member of the Legislature, and he said a Democrat can win in Cache County.

"He has before," said Jensen, referring to former representative Cecil Jorgensen, who was elected in 1963 and, like Jensen, was a former Cache Valley teacher.

The genesis of Jensen's campaign came from the same place many local Democrats are hanging their hopes this fall -- gubernatorial candidate Scott Matheson Jr.

Matheson, who invited Jensen to run, was mentioned often in interviews when Democrats were asked about the future of the party locally. Despite the fact that there are Democrats in nearly every local race, Matheson, the son of a former Utah governor, has been pegged as the most likely candidate to win over undecided or unaffiliated voters in Cache County.

"He's so Utah," said one local supporter.

But in Cache County, where the Democratic vote total usually hovers below 30 percent, gathering more votes for the party is just one part of a bigger goal.

"I think the big thing is for people to have an open mind," said Pearce. "Vote on the issues."

Perhaps Thompson summed it up best as he walked through the streets of Smithfield last weekend and talked about local Democrats' chances this year:

"I wish our valley wouldn't vote straight party so much," he said.


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