Businessman trounces Utah Democratic Party leader to take the post heading into 2020 election

Park City • Utah Democrats on Saturday ousted their embattled party chairwoman and replaced her with a Holladay businessman who pledged to lift the party from financial and relational turmoil.

Jeff Merchant toppled incumbent Daisy Thomas in a commanding victory, winning more than 76% of votes cast in the race during the party’s organizing convention at Park City High School. The sizable lead, he said, signaled that Democrats are clamoring for change — not just in the GOP-dominated state government but within their own party.

“Over the last several months, and honestly over the last two years, I’ve seen the party pulled apart by issue after issue. My hope is that we can address those issues and start talking about bringing the party together,” Merchant said in an interview after his win.

He described himself as a moderate Democrat on some issues and a progressive on others but said his role as chairman is primarily administrative.

Minutes after losing her bid for a second term, Thomas said she is confident Democrats will rally and pull together for the 2020 election. However, the progressive, who supported Bernie Sanders in the last presidential election, said she is worried about what will happen if the state’s party isn’t led by champions of economic, environmental and social justice.

“I don’t feel like I’ve necessarily lost, because I know that I stand firm for all of the people of Utah who deserve someone who’s going to be an activist who’s going to fight for their issues,” she said.

The convention took place against a backdrop of interpersonal drama and financial struggle for Utah Democrats. The party’s infighting and financial troubles have been on full display in the media in recent years. And in the days leading up to the convention, a couple former party officers blasted Thomas in Facebook posts that claimed she demeaned her staff and was prone to fits of rage.

Merchant campaigned for a chance to right the ship by rebuilding trust, pulling the party out of debt and beefing up its meager staffing.

Speaking onstage Saturday, Thomas defended her term by noting that the party made gains in the 2018 elections, when Democrat Ben McAdams unseated Republican Rep. Mia Love in the 4th Congressional District. Under her leadership, the party lowered its debt, grew its grassroots donor base and empowered local Democratic groups, she said.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Daisy Thomas comments as she and candidates for the Utah Democratic Party Chair, Becky Moss, Jeff Marchant and Robert Comstock face each other in a debate at the Salt Lake City public library, Thursday, June 6, 2019.

“Through all of it, I have been in the trenches with you, and I have the scars to prove it,” she said.

But also during Thomas’ two-year term, the state party faced criticism for its handling of sexual harassment allegations against a former party chairman candidate, Rob Miller. While the accusations surfaced before Thomas took office, she was involved in dealing with the fallout.

Earlier this year, the party’s coffers were so empty that the executive committee decided to stop paying Thomas for the remainder of her term.

Merchant has committed to forgo a salary until the party is debt-free. Owner of a health care company, Merchant has said he has the fundraising skills to repair the party’s budget and the leadership experience to turn it into a powerful force for Democratic political campaigns.

In an interview following Saturday’s election, Merchant says he plans to initiate a national search for an executive director to lead the state party. The organization’s current executive director, Alex Cragun, will stay on staff in the meantime, he said.

Going into the convention, the field in the party chair’s race included four candidates: Thomas, Merchant, Robert Comstock and Becky Moss, chairwoman of the Utah Stonewall Democrats. Moss, however, withdrew her name from consideration during her speech to the gathered delegates, saying she realized she hadn’t campaigned hard enough for the party post.

“Today, I know that I am not the first choice. I know that you and the Democratic Party are my first choice,” she said, encouraging delegates to cast their votes for Merchant.

A couple of former party leaders spoke out against Thomas in the days before the organizing convention, writing scathing Facebook posts about her leadership style. Benjamin Luks-Morgan, the party’s former finance director, blamed Thomas for creating an atmosphere of fear in their workplace and urged fellow Democrats to support Merchant.

"I have worked many jobs, with many bad bosses, and none messed me up quite like this one did," Luks-Morgan wrote Thursday. "How do you explain the terror that develops when you work 14 hour days, because the expectations are impossible, and then you are asked what even is the purpose of your job?"

A former party vice chairman, Marcus Stevenson, described a “destructive culture” inside the party under Thomas’ leadership, based on patterns of inappropriate behavior, secret meetings and “outright cruelty to those she had authority over.” He wrote that he witnessed Thomas berating party staff and said she disappeared from the office without explanation just two weeks before the 2018 elections.

"Each day we kept asking ourselves if she would come in that day and after a week away, she finally did," Stevenson wrote in his Friday post.

But Thomas did have some allies at Saturday’s convention, most notably Deb Henry, a vice chair candidate who used much of her speaking time to support the incumbent’s reelection bid.

“I have the institutional knowledge to tell you Daisy is the best choice for chair,” Henry said.

Henry then dropped out of the running and endorsed F. Jay Seegmiller for party vice chair. Seegmiller lost the post to Nadia Mahallati.