Four rivals for the Utah Democratic Party chairmanship squared off Thursday night over the organization’s finances, cohesiveness and strategies for expanding the party’s footprint in a ruby-red state.
The candidate forum at the Salt Lake City Public Library was disjointed — interrupted after about a half-hour by a fire alarm that led to the building’s temporary evacuation — but touched on some of the key differences between the party’s current leader and her challengers. During her introductory speech, party Chairwoman Daisy Thomas said she has focused her term on building up the party and is eager to continue that work over the next two years.
“What we saw in the last election is that this party is ready to explode, and as the Utah Democratic Party chair, I am ready to lead us into 2020,” Thomas said.
The three candidates who have lined up to oust her from office see things somewhat differently. Those contenders — Becky Moss, chairwoman of the Utah Stonewall Democrats; Robert Comstock, a longtime public schoolteacher; and Jeff Merchant, owner of several assisted living centers — agreed during the discussion and during interviews Thursday that the party is poised to make gains. But they say the potential is there despite the party’s internal struggles.
Over the past couple years, the party has been roiled by controversy over its handling of sexual harassment allegations against former party chairman candidate Rob Miller. The organization has also been dogged by financial problems, so strapped for cash that its executive committee earlier this year decided to stop paying Thomas for the remainder of her term.
Democrats will be electing new party leaders for the next two years during a June 22 organizing convention in Park City.
The party’s financial strength depends on its ability to raise money and to think big when seeking donors, Merchant said in a phone interview Thursday.
“I think the grass-roots fundraising is important, but you have to have more than that. We have to have a multipronged approach where we’re asking smaller and larger donors to provide the party with the resources that we need,” he said.
Merchant said the roughly $80,000 in party debt that has piled up in recent years is worrisome but argued he’s proven his ability to help struggling operations, having bought and turned around an assisted living home several years ago.
During the forum, one person shouted from the audience to challenge Merchant to explain why he had barely contributed any of his own money to the state’s Democratic party, given its financial difficulties. Merchant responded that he hadn’t donated for the same reason many others keep their wallets closed: “They don’t believe that the party is using the money wisely.”
Thomas said she inherited about half the current debt, while the rest accumulated because the party unexpectedly had to stage an election night event for which it hadn’t budgeted funds. The party has since worked to pay down that debt, she said.
Moss said if she’s elected chairwoman, she would draw heavily on input from the central committee to guide financial decisions. And she’s willing to forgo compensation while the party is growing its donor base and working to regain a solid monetary footing.
“I don’t expect to be paid immediately if I win. And if I bring them into financial stability, then I will go to the central committee and ask for them to pay me,” she said.
Comstock believes expanding party membership is the key to a healthy budget.
Shortly before the last election of party leaders in 2017, seven female activists accused Miller, one of the candidates for party chairperson, of multiple incidents of sexual misconduct. Miller dropped out of the race and left the party. But at the time, the Democrats had no anti-harassment policy or procedures in place, and the party has faced a variety of criticisms for its response to the allegations.
Comstock said the party must establish a transparent and specific procedure for dealing with these types of allegations in the future, so no one is afraid to report misconduct. While the party has been working over the past couple years to strengthen its anti-harassment policy, Merchant said there’s room for improvement.
“We have taken way too long on this topic. This is a topic that should’ve been resolved years ago,” he said.
Thomas said the new anti-harassment policy is headed toward approval but acknowledged that the process has taken longer than she would have liked.
“It is a very sticky topic to deal with,” she said. “But we are on a good path.”
Moss agreed that the party needs a solid policy for addressing allegations and said Democratic leaders should also own up when they’ve erred in the handling of these cases.
“True apologies are really rare, but they really help,” she said in a phone interview.
When coaching candidates, Democrats should look to party members who have already won elected office, Moss said. Utah Democrats did make gains in the last election, with Ben McAdams claiming the 4th Congressional District post and Democrats picking up several seats in the state Legislature.
But Moss said the party isn’t always good at staying connected with elected Democrats.
“The very first thing is to bring the elected people back into the party and listen to what they have to say,” she said in a phone interview.
Thomas said she wants to expand the party’s presence to unreached parts of the state “so we actually continually strive to be a 29-county party, because right now, we’re not.” She also argued that shaking up the party leadership before the 2020 elections would be “myopic” and would sacrifice the institutional knowledge she’s developed during her term.
“We have too much at risk right now,” she said.
Merchant said if elected chairman, he would build up the party’s staffing, hiring people who could help Democratic candidates collect data or spread their message across social media.
“This party needs to become a professional party,” he said during the debate.
Comstock said he would encourage candidates to articulate their positions clearly without watering them down or apologizing for them. Recruiting candidates from working-class backgrounds would also be a priority, said Comstock, once a letter carrier and remodeling contractor.
“I have a common, working-class background, and that’s what gives me the insight into people’s problems. I would look for candidates who are like that,” he said in a phone interview.