The battle to replace outgoing Democratic Senator Pat Jones in 2014 is turning into a veritable clash of the titans, and that’s just for the Democratic nomination.
It looks like the Democratic field could feature two former Senate Minority Leaders in Ross Romero and Scott Howell, both of whom are eyeing a return to Capitol Hill.
Romero decided to not run for re-election in 2012 after his district was combined with Jones’ following redistricting. He later lost the Democratic nomination for Salt Lake County Mayor to eventual winner Ben McAdams. He has already declared his intention to run for the nomination in SD 4.
Howell left the legislature following the 2000 election more than a decade ago. In 2012 he lost the race for U.S. Senate to Republican Orrin Hatch. He says he didn’t even want to think about another political race for a while, but he was approached by a group of residents in East Millcreek and Holladay following the news that Jones was retiring from the Legislature.
“It was not my natural inclination,” he said. “It’s like I just had a baby and needed some time to recover. But I’ve been meeting with people from there and I’m about 85% certain I’m going to run.”
Howell’s roots run deep in that area. He grew up smack dab in the middle of Senate District 4. His parents were both educators there and he graduated from Skyline High School. That’s reflected by the fact he outpolled Hatch in the district in 2012 by a 55-45 margin.
But why would Howell want to head back to the Legislature following a 14-year hiatus?
“This district, while Democratic, needs a moderate, centrist Democratic candidate. If the Republicans ran a moderate, mainline Republican candidate, that seat could be lost. I don’t want that to happen.”
He stresses that you can’t just run any Democrat and expect to win. He points to Senate District 8, which he used to represent.
“I was a Democrat in the Cottonwood Heights area, which is conservative. When I left, a Republican won the seat. But then Karen Morgan, a centrist Democrat, was able to hold that district. Now there’s a Republican in that seat again.”
Howell understands that, if he decides to run, the stakes will be high. Right now there are just 5 Democrats in the State Senate. 4 of those are up for election, but District 4 is the most endangered.
“If the Senate drops to 4 Democrats, it would be a disaster. We have to have some balance politically in this state. When I was elected, we had 7 and got up to 11 Democrats - which was just 4 away from a majority. If I run, I just don’t want to be a Senator, but I want to find ways that we can do things on a statewide level so we, as a party, can be more competitive.”
Howell is quick to point at education as an issue he thinks the party could do a better job highlighting.
“I think the constituency is looking at the Democratic representation on the hill and not finding leadership or talent that can get those kind of bills through the system. Back in 1998, I passed a bill to add kindergarten to our compulsory education system. Until then, kindergarten was an afterthought. I was the first to propose the idea of full-day kindergarten. We need a more diligent focus on educational issues. There has to be a leader up there that knows how to work across the aisles.”
It’s possible Howell and Romero won’t be the only heavy hitters in the upcoming Democratic primary. Former Senator, and current Representative Patrice Arent is rumored to be eyeing a bid to replace Jones. There are also rumblings former Salt Lake County Council member Jani Iwamoto is considering the race as well.
It’s not often a seat in the legislature comes open because of retirement. When it does, candidates - good candidates - tend to come out of the woodwork. The Democratic delegates in Senate District 4 may have a tough decision ahead of them.