When the daughter of one late Democratic governor took the stage Saturday to urge delegates to oust the son of another from Congress, she made clear how extraordinary were the circumstances leading to her choice.
Janet Rampton Warburton, daughter of former Gov. Calvin Rampton, joined those who successfully forced Rep. Jim Matheson, son of Gov. Scott Matheson, into the first primary of his career. They were put off by the five-term congressman's bucking of his party on such matters as health care reform, and said they wanted someone who favors the whole party platform.
"I've never voted against a Matheson in my life," Warburton said, "but I think it's time."
When delegates voted about an hour later, they put Warburton's candidate, Claudia Wright, into a June 22 face-off with Matheson by giving her 45 percent to Matheson's 55 percent. Wright needed at least 40 percent to move forward. She won 369 votes to Matheson's 451.
The primary winner will go on to face Republican nominee Morgan Philpot in the November election.
As the votes were tallied, Wright supporter Will Richmond held a sign for his candidate in the lobby. He said he came to the convention because he's tired of not knowing where the state's lone Democratic congressman really stands.
"It would be better if we had a Republican than Jim Matheson," the Salt Lake City resident said. "At least we would know."
Democrats also voted on a contested Senate nomination, and chose Salt Lake City businessman Sam Granato over Christopher Stout. Granato won 77.5 percent to avoid a primary.
The Wright campaign spent the convention -- at the Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City -- working to convince delegates she can be elected in a relatively conservative district that Matheson has owned in part because of his moderate stands.
"Claudia Wright can be your candidate for the 2nd Congressional District," Warburton said, inducing chants of "Yes we can!" from hundreds of delegates.
Matheson called his 10-point margin "a win" and said he'll relish campaigning for the primary. "It's a challenging district" for Democrats, he said, and he believes only he can beat a Republican. But he acknowledged the enthusiasm of Wright's supporters.
"It's a group of folks with passion about individual issues," he said.
Wright, a retired high school teacher and college gender studies instructor, is a lesbian who calls herself "progressive," and says she is electable.
She went room-to-room in the morning caucuses at convention telling delegates Republicans have become so radical in their nominating process that some of their party members will consider Democrats, including her.
"The Republican Party has moved so far right that those Republicans who are moderate are seriously considering becoming Democrats," Wright said in the morning to the Stonewall Democrats, a gay-rights caucus.
"This election belongs to whoever can get voters out to vote," she said.
Matheson told the same caucus he would help end the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy against gays and lesbians serving, and will fight for employment nondiscrimination. Then he reminded them he is a proven winner.
"I'm the only one for Utah who's ever been there to face the issues I just described," Matheson said. "You support me and I'm going to guarantee we win this seat in November."
Later, in front of the entire convention, the congressman acknowledged differences on some issues -- he has repeatedly said he wanted more cost containment in the health reform -- but asked delegates to look at his whole record. Usually he is the only one in Utah's congressional delegation standing with them, he said. A campaign video pictured his father, the last Democratic Utah governor, to emphasize his roots in the party.
"I get it," Matheson told the crowd, not long after dozens of them had chanted "Wright for Utah!" and hoisted his opponent's signs. "You're angry about some of my votes," he said, drawing some ironic applause. "But I'm a Democrat and I'm here to tell you I don't run from that label because it's in my blood."
After winning her way onto the June 22 ballot, Wright said "it was done by grass-roots people who just want change." She pledged to keep close to the voters by rejecting campaign contributions by any company she does not believe works "for the public good."
Matheson wasn't the only incumbent she overcame at the convention. U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, came to Salt Lake City to back Matheson and preserve the Democratic majority in Congress.
Hoyer made a pragmatic pitch to delegates, saying only Matheson can win in a district that includes not just the capital but broad conservative reaches of rural Utah. He said Matheson is important to the majority even if he doesn't vote strictly along party lines.
"I expect members of Congress to come and represent their districts," he said in a news conference. He contrasted Democrats' "big tent" to the far-right Republicans who rejected three-term Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and urged Democrats not to splinter in the same way.
"Jim Matheson is uniquely qualified and uniquely in touch with that district," he said.
Some Wright backers bristled at Matheson's calling on Hoyer. When the majority leader told the state party's environmental caucus that it takes a continued Democratic majority to win battles on clean energy and land conservation, Salt Lake City voter John Weis confronted him.
"Claudia Wright can win this district," Weis said. "Claudia Wright would've voted for cap-and-trade [carbon emission controls]. Claudia Wright would have voted for health care. You are saying we don't need someone with a backbone."
Hoyer asked the caucus to remember the mid-1990s, when Democrats lost their last majority.
"I was there when, frankly, people who disagreed with me said, 'Oh, no, we can win these districts,'" Hoyer said. "And we lost 54 seats." Utah Democrats will make their choice, he said, but "I have to think strategically and tactically."
Wright's campaign manager, Mike Picardi, said Hoyer's support just shows how the establishment will back Matheson. He said the campaign expects no support from the state party heading into the primary, and Wright herself said of Matheson, "The party machinery has a candidate."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland disputed Wright's view.
"The party's going to do what it's done," he said, "which is make sure the process works."
He added, though, he thought the convention site in Salt Lake City hurt Matheson's chances at reaching 60 percent because some of his rural delegates did not make the trip.
Democratic contested races
Sam Granato » 77.5 percent.
Christopher Stout » 22.5 percent.
2nd Congressional District*:
Jim Matheson » 55 percent.
Claudia Wright » 45 percent.
Utah House District 25*:
Joel Briscoe » 41 percent.
Anthony Kaye » 36 percent.
Sen. Bob Bennett didn't receive enough delegate votes at the Utah Republican convention to continue in the election process. › A1