Bluntly put, will the Hispanic influence in the party – and to a lesser extent, gender politics – rule the day?
The two primaries pit long-time Hispanic activist Josie Valdez against former state House member Ty McCartney in Senate District 8 (an open seat) and public housing manager Liz Muniz against veteran Rep. Neal Hendrickson in House District 33.
Could the two races be a turning point in Salt Lake County Democratic politics?
“It could be. I could be,” said Hendrickson, who is considered the dean of Utah House Democratic service.
“It depends, of course, on the outcome. There is quit a bit of Hispanic influence” in West Valley City.
But in past elections, there hasn’t necessarily been the turn out in the Hispanic community at the polls, said Hendrickson. “It depends on who can be registered and whether they vote.”
Of course, all politics is local, as the saying goes. And there are any number of influences involved in both primaries.
Is Hendrickson too conservative for his changing West Valley City district?
Is Valdez so well known in her Murray City home base that McCartney, from Cottonwood Heights, is overwhelmed?
And so on.
Still, critical in both contests is an Hispanic woman running against a white male – and what that may mean in the Utah’s minority Democratic Party that’s looking to increase its voting base in the Hispanic community.
In fact, the Hispanic movement, if it can be called that, has actually already started.
In April’s Salt Lake County Democratic Convention an Hispanic woman, Angela Romero, defeated Rep. Brian Doughty, D-Salt Lake, in House District 26.
Doughty was an appointee of the district’s old 2010 delegates. And he was removed by the new 2012 district delegates. Still, Doughty’s defeat shows Romero’s strength in the central city district.
Careful not to take sides in any intra-Democratic Party races, state party chairman Jim Dabakis told UtahPolicy, “We just have great Latina candidates this year – along with our other great candidates.”
The Hispanic women are “smart, articulate,” he added.
The 2010 Census shows that 14 percent of Utahns are Hispanics. But they don’t vote in those numbers, said Dabakis.
Still, in a number of areas, Hispanic influence can be dominant, if they register and vote.
“I was recently driving to Logan, and looking at Census numbers. In one (state House area) in central Logan, a majority of voters had Hispanic names. In Logan!”
Within one week, said Dabakis, the state party is going to hire a new staffer specifically to identify and register Hispanic voters.
“It is one of our main growth areas,” Dabakis said.
Could the simple fact that the state party is going after Hispanic voters influence the outcome of some intra-party races?
Dabakis said he doesn’t know. But he said he doesn’t “feel any blowback” from old line, white Democrats over the party going after the Hispanic vote.
“Frankly, I’m guessing the (Utah) Republicans would have a much harder time with that than we would,” Dabakis said. “That’s partly because we don’t have many incumbents to start with.”
This year Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, (no relation to Angela Romero) was running against Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake, for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the Salt Lake County’s mayoral race.
Ultimately, Romero was eliminated in the April county Democratic convention by McAdams.
But Romero made a point in his mayoral race to argue that the state party’s new effort in recruiting Mormons into the party, while desirable was missing short-term gains.
Romero said that Utah and Salt Lake County Democrats should really be going after the Hispanic vote, since there are so many Hispanics who don’t vote now and would be favorable to Democratic ideals and candidates.
Valdez and McCartney evenly split the delegate vote in the county convention, and so go to an open June 26 primary roughly equal in the eastside Senate district being vacated by retiring Sen. Karen Morgan, R-Cottonwood Heights.
Hendrickson, a fixture in the House having served since 1990, actually got fewer convention votes than did Muniz. But he survived in a tough contest that saw Muniz top him 54-46 percent. That pair go to a primary as well.
Besides gender and ethnicity, there are other interesting sidelights to the two Democratic primaries:
-- Muniz is the sister of long-time Democratic/Hispanic activist James Gonzales. Gonzales has recently started a new Hispanic advocacy group that could be bleeding over into the campaign, says Hendrickson.
-- Valdez is the wife of Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray. If she wins the Senate seat, and Wheatley wins re-election this fall, it would be the first time in memory that a husband and wife team served at the same time in the Legislature.
Muniz, who couldn’t be interviewed for this story, and Valdez, who couldn’t be reached, have long-standing ties to the Hispanic community.
Muniz works as a senior property manager for the Salt Lake City Housing Authority, which helps in low-income housing.
Valdez sits on the board of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Hendrickson said in 20 years he’s never faced a primary.
“This is a whole new experience for me,” he says, admitting that for the first time he’s having to identify core supporters in an election that won’t see much turnout.
“In my area, I (along with Muniz) am the only Democrat on the primary ballot. There’s the GOP (U.S.) Senate race (a primary between Sen. Orrin Hatch and Dan Liljenquist), but that won’t help me with turnout,” said Hendrickson.
The central part of Salt Lake County is changing, he said.
Older, white LDS residents are seeing families of color moving in, adding to the community while changing it.
It’s playing out in one GOP incumbent’s re-election as well, said Hendrickson.
Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, is being challenged this fall by Democrat Celina Milner, an Hispanic, said Hendrickson and Dabakis.
“This election year could be a real changing time” for Democratic politics in the area, said Hendrickson.
Hendrickson wants more participation in Democratic politics, and doesn’t resent any party newcomers.
Dabakis said the Anderson seat is one Republican-held district Democrats could pick up this election.
Said Hendrickson: “But it’s hard when Democrats are after Democrats, especially (for) some of the old time people” in West Valley seeing a challenge to an incumbent.
Those who support Muniz “believe this is the time, and they are free to do what they think they need to,” said Hendrickson.
The Hispanic Caucus is the third largest in the state Democratic Party, said Dabakis, and growing.
“It is a tremendously hardworking caucus. And we are going to try to turn out the Hispanic vote,” he added.