On the stage were six of the more progressive – some would say liberal – Democratic candidates one could find.
And the amazing thing is – as debate moderator Max Roth of Fox 13 News told UtahPolicy – “one of them is actually going to win.”
A special state Senate District 2 debate was held Tuesday night for the 160 or so Democratic Party delegates who on Saturday will decide which of the candidates will replace Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake.
McAdams won the Salt Lake County mayor’s job in the Nov. 6 election and is leaving the Senate.
Around 50 of the delegates showed up, a show of hands at the start of the debate indicated.
The six candidates at Tuesday night’s debate in the U of U Fine Arts Museum auditorium were attorney Will Carlson, teacher Robert Comstock, retiring Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, state Rep. Brian Doughty (who was defeated in re-election by a fellow Democrat) and former Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson. Jon Watkins is also signed up for the race, but he didn’t show up Tuesday night.
Admittedly, there wasn’t a lot of differences in policy among the debaters.
Rather, it was a case of personality and political approach.
Corroon and Wilson, two Salt Lake County government veterans, and to some extent Doughty, were measured in their responses.
Dabakis, Carlson and Comstock were clear that they would hold the majority Republicans in the Utah House and Senate publicly accountable.
Dabakis, known for his rhetoric, said he would personally travel to each county in the state telling – he said “educating” – Utahns about the stupid and arrogant things the GOP Legislature may do.
Carlson, the Syracuse City attorney, said he was tired of traditional Democratic officeholders playing along with GOP legislators to get some short term gains, but falling well short of standing up for Democratic principles and issues.
Some of the things the half-dozen did agree on:
-- Taxes need to be raised and the tax system reformed to provide more money for public education and other critical state programs.
Corroon said he found ways to cut county government in recent years. But one of his outgoing suggestions is that county property taxes go up dramatically next year.
-- Utah has no business trying to tell the federal government that 30 million acres of federally-owned land must be turned over to the state. It is illegal to do so and won’t work.
-- All strongly favor a woman’s right to decide whether to have an abortion or not.
-- All favor equal rights for gays and lesbians – with Wilson saying that everyone on the stage has worked hard, openly and behind the scenes, on gay rights issues for years.
Carlson said while he vehemently supports a variety of gay rights issues, he’s actually against civil unions. “It says you want your marriage recognized, but not quite as nice as the straights get.” Gays should be able to marry like anyone else.
-- Public education teachers should be supported by the Legislature, not attacked year in and year out as GOP lawmakers do.
-- All opposed a plan backed by a number of GOP senators to raise the sales tax on food from 1.75 percent back up to the general state sales tax rate of 4.75 percent.
-- Obamacare is here to stay and the Legislature must be convinced to take 100 percent funding to expand Medicaid and the state should run its own health care exchange, not give it over to the federal government as GOP legislative leaders want.
-- And so on down a long list of progressive issues, each candidate agreeing with the others.
But that doesn’t mean the debate was boring.
Just the opposite.
Rarely is a candidate forum so full of witty language, tough talk and emotion.
Three of the male candidates – Carlson, Dabakis and Doughty – are openly gay. And all three quipped about their sexuality several times. (Senate District 2 saw the first openly-gay senator in state history and many in the gay community see the seat as belonging to a gay senator.)
Wilson choked up when she started to talk about abortion rights. The only woman on the stage, she said she had friends who have had to make the terrible decision about abortion – both having the procedure and deciding to have the baby.
Carlson, previously noting that he was raised a Mormon and went on an LDS mission, said: “God declined to give me the power to bear children, he also declined to give me the power to make decisions about it.”
In other words, men shouldn’t be make decisions about how women deal with their bodies.
Dabakis said he would “shame” Republicans about their years of inadequate funding for public education.
Comstock said Utah culture (i.e., Mormon culture) “doesn’t question authority. But we have to question authority, it is the foundation of Democracy.”
Corroon said he knows most of the GOP senators and “actually likes” many of them. But they are doing work “behind curtains,” and too often Democrats and Republicans aren’t willing to pull those curtains open and see what is going on. He’s a curtain puller.
But an undercurrent of criticism came from Carlson, Comstock, and at times Dabakis, about how Corroon, Wilson and Doughty – all officeholders -- haven’t stood up to Republican power brokers over the years – insinuations the other three specifically denied.
“I have no thought of higher office,” said Dabakis. “We won’t have a gay governor yet. I don’t have an eye for lobbyists, don’t have clients. I hope to stand up on every issue and just tell the truth.”
That, Senate sources have told UtahPolicy, is exactly what some GOP senators don’t want, hinting that Democratic delegates would be wise not to put a bomb-thrower like Dabakis in the Senate.
Corroon said he’s not a “barking dog.”
Dabakis replied: “I’m a barking dog here tonight.”
“I wasn’t referring to you,” said Corroon.
Carlson seemed just fine with that definition.
He said Corroon had accepted large donations from energy-producing firms and that under Dabakis the state Democratic Party had taken “tens of thousands” of dollars from EnergySolutions.
As a state senator, Carlson said, he wouldn’t be taking money from firms “trying to destroy our environment.”
Finally, Roth asked what kind of sex education should be in public schools.
Wilson said that is the kind of question that can catch up a candidate. She thought a moment, then said as far as she knows current sex education policies – where parents can opt out of having their children attend sex ed classes – is about right.
Doughty said there needs to be more thorough sex education taught in schools – with parents opt-out provided – including teaching about homosexuals and “respect for their gay peers.”
“I’d like to see them teach that there are people like me, that gay men exist. I thought I was alone in the universe” in his sex education classes, said Carlson.
Corroon said he recalled his family’s sex education: In a rowboat out fishing his father asked him and his brother if they knew about sex. “We both said yes, and that was it.”
If parents don’t want their children taught about sex in school, then there should be classes to teach parents how to teach sex ed in the home, Corroon said.
Said Dabakis: “We need serious talk about contraceptives, that would prevent a lot of the problems we see.”
It’s unclear how many Senate District 2 delegates will vote Saturday.
You can read about an exclusive delegate poll conducted by UtahPolicy here.
The 90-minute debate was sponsored by the ABU Education Fund, an affiliate of Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive good government group. You can hear the whole debate on the group’s web site, Roth said at the end of the debate.
You can view the borders of state Senate District 2 here, or at: http://www.utahsenate.org/maps/distmap02.shtml.
There will be only five Democratic senators in the 2013-14 Legislature, the minority party losing two seats through redistricting and the 2012 election.
The four current Senate Democrats have already held their leadership elections. And since there are four official leadership posts for the minority party (the Republicans get four posts plus Senate president), the current minority senators are all in leadership.
So McAdams’ replacement won’t be in leadership – one person led by four others.