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‘Where do you get off coming here supporting Biden?’: Washington County Democrats say they keep a low profile

Democrats in the conservative Utah county say they’ve gotten used to the shouts at parades.

(Jud Burkett | Special to The Tribune) The Washington County Democratic Party holds a breakfast meeting at George's Corner in St. George, on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. The minority party organizes Conversation Over Easy, a weekly breakfast gathering for progressives.

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St. George • Mojave Desert tortoises in southwestern Utah may be endangered, but they have fared better than Democratic officeholders, which have been extinct in Washington County for more than 50 years.

Like glimpses of Bigfoot and Jackalopes, sightings of Democratic elected officials in Utah’s fifth-most populous county are nonexistent. The last Democrat to hold elective office in Washington County was Merrill Stucki, who served as a county commissioner from 1953 to 1970, according to county elections supervisor Melanie Abplanalp.

Other Democratic officeholders of that era — County Attorney Charles Pickett, County Surveyor Leo Snow and County Commissioners Wayne Wilson and Ivan Barlow — joined the Saint Helena darter and the Viesca mud turtle as the last of their kind in the 1960s.

St. George resident Brad Gutierrez, who isn’t a registered Democrat but always votes that way, doesn’t expect the latest crop of Democratic candidates to reverse that trend.

“Running for office as a Democrat here is like being Mr. Irrelevant in pro football,” said Gutierrez, referring to the nickname given to the last pick in the annual NFL draft. “The odds of being successful are practically nil.”

Still, there are actual registered Democrats in Washington County — 9,796, of them compared to 67,164 Republicans, according to Abplanalp. Given that discrepancy, Democrats like Tom and Helen Platis try and keep a low profile surrounded as they are by many avid “MAGA” Republicans. To cope, they gather with a few close Democratic friends living in the area to commiserate.

When Gutierrez moved to St. George from Los Angeles a year ago, he had a Biden sticker on the back bumper of his car. Soon after his arrival, he was at the gas station when he was accosted by a Trump supporter in a pickup truck flying Trump banners and Confederate and “Thin Blue Line” American flags.

" ‘Where do you get off coming here supporting Biden?’ " Gutierrez remembers the man asking. " ‘In case you haven’t noticed, this is Trump country. You’d better hightail it back to Mexico where you belong.’ "

After that incident, Gutierrez said he removed the sticker and avoided talking politics on his construction job, where he was surrounded by co-workers who continued to support Donald Trump and believed in the former president’s “Big Lie” about widespread election fraud.

Chuck Goode, Washington County Democratic County chair who is running for County Commission Seat B against incumbent Republican Victor Iverson, has also encountered some opposition.

“When you’re [riding] in the parade, some people shout bad things at you,” the retired aerospace engineer said. “And you notice there’s a policeman following you because you’re on the Democratic float. It takes a lot of courage to be a Democrat.”

Even so, Goode and other Democratic hopefuls up for election this November, don’t view themselves as sacrificial lambs, even if they concede the odds of winning are against them. And they define success a little differently.

Goode, who ran unsuccessfully against Republican state Sen. Don Ipson in 2020, said Democrats’ vote percentages are inching up with every election they lose. In the 2nd Congressional District race four years ago, he noted, Democrat Kael Weston lost to Rep. Chris Stewart but garnered nearly 37% of the vote.

“It might take 20 years before we take over or [win], but we are making progress,” Goode said.

Democrats are running candidates for every County Commission race. In addition to Goode, Robert Ford, a semi-retired environmental consultant and college professor who lives in Rockville, is trying to oust GOP incumbent Gil Almquist in the County Commission Seat A race. Ford lost to Almquist in 2020 but is hoping for better results the second time around.

And St. George resident Rebecca Winsor, who was once homeless and a victim of domestic and gun violence, is trying to upend Incumbent Republican Adam Snow in the battle for County Commission Seat C. Washington City resident Ila Fica, a certified mental health counselor, is vying against Republican Joseph Elison in the state House District 72 race.

But Democrats are not fielding candidates for state House Districts 73 through 75 or for the state Senate District 28 seat. Democrats are also noticeably absent from the slate of candidates running for county sheriff, county clerk and county attorney.

“I did a lot of recruiting and beat the bushes and we couldn’t get anybody,” Goode said. “It’s a miracle we got a candidate for every single [county] commissioner race. I had somebody to run against [Republican] Walt Brooks in House District 75, but they backed out at the last minute. And this is something that happens. You can see the fear some have of being a Democratic candidate.”

Talin Hansen, municipal director for the Utah Democratic Party, said Washington County Democrats are better organized than party members in more rural areas. Nonetheless, he said the state party is planning on upping its recruitment efforts to ensure there are Democratic candidates for every elective office in 2024.

As short as the party is on candidates, Democratic candidates’ say they are long on ideas that pose fresh solutions to old problems, like the area’s looming water shortage. Instead of doubling down, like some Republicans, on creating new reservoirs and building the Lake Powell Pipeline, Democrats in Washington County say they are upping their counterparts by introducing conservation measures.

Goode, for example, touts putting automatic water generators on homes that pull moisture from the air and can produce up to 20 liters of water per day. Second, he advocates conserving water by recycling “drinking and washing water.” Finally, he proposes capturing rainwater on rooftops and storing it in cisterns, much like what is done in Bermuda.

Fica, who bills herself as a “sensible Democrat” to ease locals’ concerns about liberal extremism, wants to be proactive in investing in education, water conservation and preservation of Utah’s public lands to avoid problematic and more expensive outcomes later on.

“I’d like to prevent our public lands from being destroyed. I would like to prevent us from running out of water. I’m all about looking at the money we do have and being smart about how we [invest] it. It’s a lot like your car. It’s easier to get it serviced for $75 than to wait until there’s a problem and pay $3,000 or more to fix your transmission.”

Ford said his campaign focus is on expanding the Washington County Commission from three to five seats to keep pace with the area’s rapid growth. He also is focusing on water, transportation and affordable housing — pressing issues that defy typical blue or red labels.

Vince Brown, director of the Utah Tech University’s Institute of Politics, said it’s important for candidates belonging to parties in “permanent minority status,” like Washington County Democrats, to put distance between themselves and the national party and to avoid divisive cultural issues.

“The way you do that is to avoid the issues that the majority of the people in that particular area are going to be against, and you focus on issues that relate directly to that area,” Brown said. “Down here in [Washington County], those issues are growth, water, the economy, lifestyle, parks, zoning and traffic.”

Even though they are not winning elections, Democrats in Washington County argue they are introducing winning ideas that election victors can co-opt to solve problems. Their campaigns, they add, provide them with a forum to introduce those ideas. And despite the occasional jeers and catcalls they receive, Democratic candidates and party members say they get along well with their conservative Republican neighbors.

That’s certainly true for registered Democrat Rob Goodman. He and his wife Mary moved to Kayenta, a community in Ivins, seven years ago when he retired as director of First Stage, a professional children’s theater in heavily Democratic Milwaukee.

“Kayenta is really very inclusive,” said Goodman, who is prominent in local art circles. “I have Mormon friends. I have Republican friends. I have some super-progressive friends. We have been able to blend in well here.”

Part of that, he added, is there are six art galleries, a pottery studio, and an indoor professional theater in Kayenta.

“It’s a community that supports the arts,” Goodman said. “I find the arts have appeal across the political spectrum because they speak to the human story of which we all are a part, and not the political story, which thankfully we all are not.”