United Utah Party talks big despite tiny turnout at its first Salt Lake County convention

New party seeks to become middle-of-road home for disaffected Republicans and Democrats, and Utah’s vast unaffiliated voters.<br>

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. David Jack speaks as the new United Utah Party held its first Salt Lake County convention to elect county officers. Jack was elected as the party's county secretary, Saturday, October 28, 2017.

Draper • Richard Davis, state chairman of the fledgling United Utah Party that formed this year, looked at the 35 people at its first Salt Lake County organizing convention Saturday and said, “What a great turnout.”

It was, considering the party has only 66 official registered-voter members in Salt Lake County — meaning more than half attended at the Draper Library.

The party has only 166 registered members statewide. But its nominee for the special 3rd Congressional District race — Jim Bennett, son of the late U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett — is attracting 9 percent support in recent polls, far beyond what its tiny numbers might predict.

Data from the lieutenant governor’s office show just how small the new party is by comparison. The Utah Republican Party has 716,563 registered members; the Utah Democratic Party has 177,354; and 602,311 Utahns are unaffiliated.

But showing that the party is thinking big, Brian Fabbi, elected Saturday as county chairman of the UUP, said it seeks to be the new home for disaffected, middle-of-the-political-spectrum Democrats and Republicans — and especially for Utah’s huge number of unaffiliated voters.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brian Fabbi speaks as the new United Utah Party held its first Salt Lake County convention to elect county officers. Fabbi was elected as the party's county chairman, Saturday, October 28, 2017.

“We say that this is their home,” Fabbi said. “This is the home for those people who believe in solutions, who believe that we can reach across the aisles.”

Michelle Weeks, a Draper mayoral candidate, told the group she was a Republican when she lived in Maryland and has been a Democrat in Utah — even though her own philosophies have not changed. Now, “I’ve decided to be an independent and am looking at joining your party,” because she is “tired of extremes.”

“Republicans don’t like me because I’m threatening their good old boy network,” she said. “The Democrats don’t like me because I’m not liberal enough for them. I’m in the middle. That’s where a lot of people in this room are.”

Bennett said the new party and his congressional campaign “have given people the opportunity to realize you have another choice. The [Utah] Democrats have decided they don’t want to become competitive. ... The Republicans have decided they can do whatever they want, because you have no where else to go.”

Looking at the small numbers in the room, Bennett remained upbeat about the party’s long-term future.

“They told us we wouldn’t be able to get on the ballot. We got on the ballot,” after winning a federal lawsuit. “They told us we wouldn’t be able to get into the debate” because poll numbers would be too low, “but we got into the debate. Now they tell us we’ll not be able to win this election. I think we can win this election.”

Bennett said people ask him what influence he could have in Congress if he does not belong to one of the two main parties. “I can have far more influence than either a Republican or a Democrat because I can be an honest broker.”

Davis, a former Utah County Democratic Party chairman, said the new party holds positions that he believes most Utahns support: increasing education funding, creating a nonpartisan redistricting commission to avoid gerrymandering, backing term limits and imposing campaign donation caps “to avoid buying candidates.”

It also opposes immigration stands taken by President Donald Trump, especially his call to build a wall along the Mexican border. Davis held up a piece of the old Berlin Wall and told the gathering, “Walls are a symbol of fear” and also show “how it is possible for us to deteriorate into a dictatorship.”

In an interview as Davis looked at those gathering for the convention, he said that many great things began small — and the BYU political science professor talked about a few.

The women’s movement began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, he noted. It had 300 attendees. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints started with six official members in 1830 and now has more than 15 million. He said the civil rights movement “also started small.”

Some historians say it began in earnest in 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus, essentially beginning with one woman.

So he predicts that the UUP won’t “just be a third party,” but will soon “become the second party in Utah” because “it represents the beliefs of most people here.”