Salt Lake City Sen. Jim Dabakis to retire from Legislature at end of term

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Senator Howard Stephenson, left, R-Draper and Senator Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake at the Utah Legislture's Tax and Revenue Committee Wednesda September 21.

The Republican-dominated Utah Legislature’s most outspoken Democratic foil announced Tuesday he wouldn’t seek re-election. Sen. Jim Dabakis won’t run again for his safely Democratic Salt Lake City seat in November.

His decision caught some lawmakers off guard and led to immediate questions over whether he’d seek another office after stepping away. He declined to say whether his plans include another run for a different office, but said he’d remain involved in politics in the short term as he works to unseat Republicans.

“Clearly, the war for a reasonable Utah has not been won,” he wrote in his announcement. “I will continue to lead our army of 60,000 forward-looking people all across our beloved state.”

Dabakis, who has made it a custom to host live broadcasts during lunchtime at the Capitol, said he’d be more active with his newsletter, social media and website.

He deflected questions about whether his retirement is queuing up a possible run for another office by saying the decision was in line with his position that state lawmakers shouldn’t stay in office too long.

Six years as a senator representing a liberal district in the Avenues community was all he’d hoped for, he said. He had, however, indicated in January he intended to collect 2,000 signatures toward a re-election bid this fall. He said he decided not to run again after the Presidents Day holiday weekend, which will give time for others who may choose to run for his seat to collect signatures and campaign.

Hopefuls must declare their candidacy by March 15, just a week after the end of the legislative session.

Dabakis, former Utah Democratic Party chairman, is the only openly gay member of the state Legislature and regrets that he may leave the Capitol without that voice when he leaves.

“The ability to have actual, real live gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people in the body, there making the decisions, sitting on the other side ... is really, really important for this state,” he said. “That kind of broad diversity, not just on LGBT [issues] but in others areas, is a place that we do need some work.”

Dabakis said one of his proudest moments on Capitol Hill was “play[ing] a part in bringing the ‘homos and the Momos’ together with the historic 2015 LGBTQ Non-Discrimination Law.” That law, supported by gay-rights organizations like Equality Utah and the Mormon church, bans discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation while preserving some religious freedoms.

The bill was championed by former Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, and current Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who said Dabakis was helpful in bringing people to the table and keeping them there.

“Even though he’s the voice of opposition, I’ve actually found him at times to be the voice of reason,” said Adams, who joked about Dabakis’ ability to influence legislation when he’s not loudly condemning Republican actions. “If he isn’t talking, he seems to be more reasonable.”

Dabakis, it seems, did little talking about his plans before making his announcement, surprising fellow Democrats.

“I was surprised, shocked and sad,” said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. “He’s an important voice to have up here.”

Other lawmakers said they’d miss his dissent in the Capitol.

“He’s raised a voice of opposition at times. We welcomed that,” said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy. “He represents a constituency that needs to be heard. And that’s part of what we espouse. We’ve become friends over that time. I wish he’d stay.”

Dabakis also declined to name anyone he hoped would take his place, saying he disliked when politicians tried to hand-pick their successors.

But he showcased his style while talking about a bill pushed by Republicans that passed out of the Senate minutes earlier that encourages the creation of a national park in southern Utah that is several times smaller in acreage than the original boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

“You guys are dead wrong. This is an imbecilic, terrible, horrible idea that future generations are going to hate you for,” Dabakis said later of SCR8.

“I don’t have any problems doing that at all,” he said of his barbed rhetoric. “That’s what my district wants to hear.”