McEntee: Jim Dabakis, an entrepreneur with a new mission
Jim Dabakis is a big, ebullient guy who can sit down for coffee with a stranger and make the conversation last two hours.
So it's no surprise that after touring the state to talk to Democrats, he was elected chairman of the Utah Democratic Party with a majority of about 85 percent. As all the news reports said, he's the first openly gay man to serve in that role, not that he makes a big deal of it.
"As I said at the convention, this was such an honor," Dabakis said. The party tracks its roots back to 1884, "and I said that for the first time, the [delegates] had the possibility of an openly Greek-American chairman."
Luckily, he got some laughs.
Dabakis earned his fortune in radio, starting out as a volunteer, then a paid announcer who put a little money into a few Utah stations that were swept up by Clear Channel in the mid-1990s.
He's put his money to good use, helping to establish Equality Utah and the Utah Pride Center. He's an art dealer, too, specializing in a particular genre of Russian paintings, drawings and lithographs.
And he and his partner have the James J. Dabakis Educational Foundation, a small operation that has helped a lot of young people, in Russia, the Balkans, China and elsewhere.
One Russian woman ran a hair salon but had some management issues. She came over, Dabakis counseled her on management principles and techniques, and she went back home.
Another is Dickson Lei, who was working as a trainee in a hotel in Beijing where Dabakis was staying. Lei helped find Dabakis an apartment, and signed on as a part-time translator for him.
Lei, who grew up in eastern China, told Dabakis his parents had died when he was young. Through the foundation, Dabakis brought Lei to Utah, where he is studying for an accounting degree at the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business.
Lei also is working for the export company Parker International, a job he landed because Dabakis has friends there.
The two talk every month or so. "He's like a father to me. He asks how school is, how my work is. It's like a family," said Lei, who's on track to graduate next May.
While the foundation has brought Lei and other students to the states, many of the young people are helped at home.
"Obviously, we can help more in their own country," Dabakis said. "The foundation is not a big deal. Anyone would be helpful if they could."
Dabakis is also a world traveler, spending months at a time taking in other places and cultures. Not any more, for at least the two years of his chairmanship term.
"It used to be I'd be traveling to Tokyo, Taiwan and Timbuktu," he said.
He is planning a southern Utah run in the next few days, much as he toured the state before the election. And he'll be a fixture at the Democratic Party's offices in Salt Lake City.
Dabakis has worked to make Mormons, independents. Democrats and Republicans more comfortable together. He's also got his sights on the Latino community, which now makes up about 15 percent of the state's population.
"We have to get to Hispanics and explain to them that our inclusive message includes them," he said.
Being the first gay person to lead a state Democratic Party isn't unusual; gay men hold the seats in Colorado and New Hampshire.
Still, it's a chance to invite other Americans to change their perceptions about Utah, Dabakis says.
"It's showing we're not the bad things sometimes people purport us to be," he said. "We're a lot more open and diverse."
Have a cup of coffee with him. He'll tell you all about it.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee.com and facebook.com/pegmcentee.
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