Stiffed by a stingy GOP-controlled Legislature that didn't want to spend $600,000 next February on a presidential primary only for Democrats, the Utah Democratic Party will go it alone next year, holding a scaled-down "firehouse" primary to pick its favorite candidate to challenge President Bush.
"It's preliminary. But our thinking is we'll hold our own party primary next Feb. 27," said Todd Taylor, executive director of the state Democratic Party. The "firehouse" primary would be conducted by the party itself, not by county clerks at taxpayer expense, and be run on the cheap, Taylor said.
Rep. Susan Lawrence, R-East Millcreek, sponsor of HB342 — the bill that passed the Legislature its final day and says presidential primaries in Utah will only be held if the Legislature funds them — said ultimately the best choice was made. "Otherwise, with no state funding," counties would have been forced to hold a primary in 2004 "when there wasn't that much interest."
At least not much interest among Republicans, who outnumber Democrats in Utah two to one and hold two-thirds majorities in the Utah House and Senate.
GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt worked long and hard in 1998 and 1999 to organize what he called the Western States Presidential Primary. He got the 1999 Legislature to appropriate $600,000 to pay for a statewide vote in early March 2000.
Leavitt, a former GOP strategist before winning the governor's office in 1992, believed that if eight or 10 Western states banded together and held an early 2000 primary, Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls would visit the states. And Utah and her sister Mountain West states could have a real political impact in picking the next president, Leavitt argued.
It didn't happen that way. Only two other states joined Utah and both Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore locked up their respective party nominations in primaries held just before Utah's. Only 107,000 Utahns voted in an election that meant nothing, at a cost of $5.59 per vote.
Lawrence at first wanted to repeal the presidential primary law so Democrats couldn't shout partisan politics over not funding the 2004 version. But after Leavitt heard there was a move afoot to repeal his primary baby, GOP lawmakers did an about-face. The law was amended to say a presidential primary would only be held if the Legislature funds it. And, says Lawrence, that may happen in 2008 when both Republicans and Democrats could have contested nominations again.
"No one was even thinking about the cost (in 2004) until I approached people and said we should move the primary date up a week or so so we could have an impact" on the nomination, said Taylor. He anticipated that the state would pick up the primary election cost. But it soon became apparent it wouldn't — Leavitt didn't put any money for one in his recommended 2003-2004 budget and in tough economic times GOP legislative leaders were looking for ways to cut costs right and left. Especially to the left.
Said Taylor, "I'm disappointed. There's no question in my mind that if legislators had to chose $600,000 for education or Medicare or the CHIP (children's health insurance program) versus running a primary — it's a hard case for us to make we should do it."
But in the final days of the 2003 Legislature, GOP leaders were grabbing money from the tobacco settlement fund for all kinds of one-time expenses — like taking $25,000 for transplanting wild turkeys.
"It's an easy call for me if it's money for a primary election or turkey transplants," said Taylor.
Leavitt spokeswoman Natalie Gochnour said when last-minute holes in the budget were being filled, "the primary was never considered" for one-time funding. "But the consensus was, let's keep our options open, and that's what the bill does."
But Taylor adds: "Where do we see a commitment by the Legislature to democracy? For things the public cares about? Whether it is the citizen initiative process, other election reforms or creating a citizen redistricting commission, these things are not high on the Legislature's priority."
So, like they did in 1992, Utah Democrats will go it alone. Next Feb. 27, a Friday, they will hold a "firehouse" primary. While final details are to be worked out, most likely, as in 1992, Democrats will hold a primary with all the major Democratic presidential candidates on the ballot. In 1992, just over 31,000 people voted in the party-sponsored primary.
The party will rent out space in local high schools and any adult with a Utah driver's license, utility bill or other proof of residency can come and vote. They will sign a form saying they are Democrats (something the national party requires), but voter registration rolls will not be consulted and voting in the Democratic primary won't change your official party registration.
Ballots will be cast, and any candidate getting more than 15 percent of the vote will be apportioned part of the 29 national delegates, based on his vote totals, when Utah gets to the National Democratic Party Convention, to be held in Boston July 26-29 next year.
Taylor was successful through Lawrence's bill in getting Utah's presidential primary date moved from early March to late February. While the dates for the big, regional primaries like Super Tuesday have not been firmly set yet, Taylor notes, moving Utah's presidential primary to the final Friday in February likely means only 10 other "small states" — like Iowa and New Hampshire — would will hold presidential primaries primary elections before Utah.
"We hope all the Democratic contenders will come to Utah to campaign — hey, some already have."