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Hate-crime bill getting a push

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Proponents of the late Sen. Pete Suazo's hate-crime legislation say they're planning a grass-roots movement that will make it impossible for legislators to avoid an open debate on the controversial piece of legislation this year.

The group Utah Common Voices gathered along with four Democratic legislators Thursday night at Calvary Baptist Church, 1090 S. State, to begin their campaign to push a hate-crime bill through the 2002 legislative session.

Suazo, who died in an ATV accident in August, tried unsuccessfully the past four years to pass hate-crime legislation. Last year, the bill passed the Senate, but Suazo supporters say Republicans corralled the bill in a rules committee to prevent it from being debated on the House floor.

Prosecutors around the state have long called the current hate-crime statute, passed in 1992, too watered down and unenforceable. The state Court of Appeals criticized the law, calling it constitutionally vague.

Suazo's widow, Alicia Suazo, has filled her late husband's seat in the Utah Senate with a vow to continue the battle.

"I am planning on running Pete's hate-crimes piece," Suazo told an enthusiastic crowd of about 50 people.

But unlike the past four years, when her husband used his experience and persuasion to work behind the scenes in gathering enough votes to pass the bill, this year's campaign will become more visible and vocal.

Utah Common Voices, which in the past has successfully fought against legislation making English the state's official language, is organizing teams that will descend on the Capitol five days a week during the session. They plan to lobby tirelessly to convince the necessary legislators of their cause.

The group also plans public debates, marches and a public relations push with members of the international media covering the Olympics to bring more attention to their cause.

"This is a great beginning, we didn't have this last year," Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, said.

Litvack sponsored a hate-crime bill in the House during the 2001 session similar to Suazo's. Litvack's bill, however, never made it out of a House standing committee.

"If anything is going to get it on the House floor, this is going to get it on the House floor," Litvack said.

But Senate Majority Leader Steve Poulton, R-Holladay, said no amount of lobbying will sway legislative leaders to take on hate crimes this year.

"They can bring all the attention to it that they want," Poulton said. "I think that people view this as un-American. . . . This is an issue that isn't the kind of thing that people are going to support."

A recent Deseret News-KSL-TV poll found a reversal of opinion about hate crimes since last year. Only 37 percent said the state needs a specific hate-crimes law, compared to 52 percent last year.

Thursday's meeting included representatives from the Hispanic, African American, Gay and Lesbian and Jewish communities.

"Legislators will not have the option to walk away," lobbyist Jim Gonzales said. "We'll get this done, I have no doubt."

E-mail: djensen@desnews.com