Democrats in the Utah Senate oust longtime minority leader during a meeting he tried to cancel

This Wednesday, March 7, 2018, photo, shows Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis of Salt Lake City speaking during a Senate news conference at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers were winding down their annual session Thursday, after opening a record number of bills but failing to pass proposals on hot-button issues, including a repeal of the death penalty and a gun-control measure. Utah lawmakers have signed off on a plan to expand Medicaid to tens of thousands of the state's poor. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Democrats in the Utah Senate deposed their longtime leader Friday morning, ousting Sen. Gene Davis from the role in a closed-door meeting that he did not attend.

Davis, a Salt Lake City resident who’s served as minority leader for about six years, said he’d tried to cancel the 7:30 a.m. meeting but learned too late that other caucus members had overruled him. The five senators who participated in the vote chose Sen. Karen Mayne of West Valley City to take charge of the caucus in 2019 and 2020.

Davis, who joined the Senate in 1999, said he’d intended to run for re-election as minority leader. Instead, he’ll be the only returning Democratic senator without a leadership post.

“Obviously, they had a change of leadership in mind, and that’s what they did,” he said after Friday’s caucus announcement.

Reached by phone, Mayne said that the Democratic caucus meeting had been on the calendar for “many days” and that she could not comment on Davis' assertions.

“This has been on the agenda,” she said. “Everyone knew this was going to happen, and everyone made choices about what they were going to do.”

Davis said he wanted to delay the meeting until lawmakers knew the final vote count in the District 12 race between Republican incumbent Sen. Daniel Thatcher, a West Valley Republican, and Democratic challenger Clare Collard. (As of Friday afternoon, Thatcher seemed in little danger of losing his seat, holding a 6-point lead over Collard.)

On Thursday evening, Davis asked caucus assistant Jon Hennington to call other Senate Democrats about canceling and rescheduling the meeting. Hennington confirmed this account of the interaction but said other caucus members had no desire to call off the election. He texted Davis early Friday morning to let him know the meeting was still on, he said.

Davis said the 6 a.m. message from Hennington didn’t leave him with enough time to make the caucus gathering.

The Democratic senators reasoned that if their leadership election was close, they could keep the results confidential. In that case, they could wait to see if Collard would win and join their caucus, potentially casting a deciding vote. Friday’s meeting produced clear winners, so the caucus decided to announce its new leadership team right away, Hennington said.

He noted that one caucus member voted by phone and said Davis could have done the same.

Davis said he didn’t call in because the caucus members have traditionally cast secret ballots and he wanted everyone there in person so the group could adhere to this practice.

He said he suspects his fellow senators wanted to oust him because of his approach to the midterm elections. His goal was to turn five more Senate seats blue and only succeeded in claiming one of those for the Democrats, although he holds out hope that Collard will win in District 12.

With a pickup of one seat, Democrats will remain a superminority to Republicans, who hold 23 of 29 Senate seats.

He said he wasn’t able to explain why there was friction over his management of the Utah Senate Democratic Campaign Fund.

“They didn’t like the way I went about doing it, probably,” he said. “All I know is that they wanted more control over the program.”

But Davis said he doesn’t bear ill will toward his Democratic peers.

“I was elected by 70 percent of the electorate in District 3," he said. " ... I will be serving them for the next four years. I am a Democrat, and I’m not leaving the party."

Mayne will occupy the top post in the six-person caucus for the next two years. Senate Democrats also elected Sen. Luz Escamilla of Salt Lake City as minority whip, Sen. Jani Iwamoto of Holladay as assistant minority whip and incoming Sen. Derek Kitchen of Salt Lake City as minority caucus manager.

For the past four years, Mayne has been minority whip in the Senate, where she's served since 2008. Escamilla was first elected the same year and is also getting a promotion — moving from assistant minority whip to minority whip.

Iwamoto, the first Asian-American woman elected to a Utah state office, has been serving as minority caucus manager, the role that will be assumed by Kitchen, a Salt Lake City councilman, in 2019 and 2020.

Republicans picked their new Senate leaders Thursday night with no apparent drama. In fact, Senate President-elect Stuart Adams, was uncontested. Sen. Evan Vickers was elected majority leader; Dan Hemmert, whip; and Ann Millner, assistant whip.