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Utah Democrats split on party's gay-marriage stance

Published September 4, 2012 7:37 pm

National convention • Some say the position is a matter of principle; others say platforms simply don't mean much.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Not many Utahns can say they are Democrats and Mormons and they support legalizing gay marriage.

But Craig Janis is one of them, and he's proud that his political party is poised to adopt a platform Tuesday evening that supports same-sex marriage for the first time in its history.

He also believes his views will become mainstream for Mormons over time and he points to Mitt Romney's father to back up his point.

As Michigan governor in the 1960s, George Romney bucked his faith and his party to support the civil-rights movement, and in hindsight he was on the right side of history. Janis says future generations of Mormons will look back on the current fight for gay rights in much the same way.

"In my opinion, you've got to do the right thing regardless of where the church comes down or where the Republican Party is at the moment," said Janis, of South Jordan. "You have to stand up for what you believe."

Paradoxically, Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, a gay man and a longtime advocate for LGBT rights, dismisses the historic platform as little more than a sideshow, distracting from more important issues involving the economy and education.

"I think platforms are pretty much anachronistic. I think they simply have no effect on politics whatsoever," Dabakis said. "They seem to satisfy the yearning of delegates in a limited time."

As the state party's leader, Dabakis has spearheaded a renewed effort to reach out to Mormons in hopes of boosting the electoral success of Utah's minority party. And Dabakis knows that Janis' views are not widely held by the LDS faithful, especially because top Mormon leaders have repeated time and again that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. He hopes that one policy disagreement won't scare away moderate Mormons.

"Utah Democrats have a lot of opinions on the marriage issues," he said. "I take pride in leading a delegation that won't march in lockstep."

Peter Cooke, the Democrats' candidate for governor, held a news conference last month to announce his opposition to gay marriage and abortion. He holds the same views as Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Senate candidate Scott Howell. All three candidates are Mormons, though none of them is a delegate to the convention, having decided to stay in Utah to campaign.

It irritates state Sen. Ross Romero to see candidates like Cooke distance themselves from the party platform.

"As delegates we should understand how moving the country forward without divisions and without separations and with fairness for all is important and reflects Democratic ideals," said Romero, a delegate from Salt Lake City. "If we don't create a distinction between ourselves and Republicans, the default in the state is to generally vote Republican."

Alan Anderson, of Midvale, is gay, a delegate to the convention and thrilled with the platform change, but he doesn't expect state candidates like Cooke and Howell to suddenly announce a change of heart. He says that's not politically realistic.

"I know in Utah it is not something we can shout about and endorse. The candidates can't," Anderson said. "If Scott Howell came out in favor of gay marriage, it would kill his campaign."

Still, Anderson was personally touched when Janis, whom he just met, reached out to let him know that not all Mormons held the same view as church leaders when it came to gay marriage.

"It just kind of threw me back," said Anderson.

Janis helped create the new LDS Democrats caucus, and he notes that there are widely divergent views among its 2,000 members. He doesn't speak for that group, but says his personal support for gay marriage is rooted in his belief that the government should treat all citizens the same.

"It's an issue of being able to live one's conscience. The idea that we can limit that for some people but not others just doesn't make sense," he said.

Like Janis, Weston Clark grew up Mormon and believes the faith will eventually drop its opposition to gay unions. Like Dabakis, Clark believes the party needs to aggressively reach out to Mormons and show their values are in line with most Democratic positions.

While he understands the friction between these efforts, Clark, a delegate from Salt Lake City, can't help but react to the party's new position from a more personal standpoint. He is in a committed relationship with his partner, and they are raising a child together.

He says President Barack Obama's recent reversal from opposing to supporting gay marriage "re-energized my excitement for him" and being in Charlotte, N.C., when the party adopts the platform is "tremendous."

"It makes me proud to be an American. It makes me proud to be a Democrat," he said. "It shows how far our country has gone. It shows how far Utah still has to go."

Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy released a poll in February that found 43 percent of Utahns supported civil unions and 28 percent backed legalizing gay marriage, while 29 percent opposed any recognition of same-sex relationships.

The political scientists found a big partisan gap, though, with 3 percent of Democrats opposing any recognition of gay couples, compared with 42 percent of Republicans and 18 percent of independents.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll from May found that 53 percent of Americans support gay marriage and 39 percent oppose efforts to legalize it.

mcanham@sltrib.comTwitter: @mattcanham —

What the Democratic platform says

Here is the new gay-marriage language in the Democratic platform:

"We support marriage equality and support the movement to secure equal treatment under law for same-sex couples. We also support the freedom of churches and religious entities to decide how to administer marriage as a religious sacrament without government interference."