Two-time U.S. House candidate Donald Dunn will challenge state Democratic Party chairwoman Meg Holbrook for the top job in the minority party in Utah.
Dunn, who is in England attending graduate school, confirmed Tuesday night that he's in the race. Holbrook said while she is leaning toward seeking a fourth two-year term as state party chairwoman this summer, Dunn's challenge will not sway her final decision either way.
Holbrook said she recently was elected to several national Democratic Party jobs, including heading the chairman's' caucus for the Western states. "If I don't run again (and win), Utah would certainly lose those positions in the Democratic National Committee," she said.
Dunn said he called Holbrook Tuesday from London to tell her of his intentions. "She and I have been friends a long time. This isn't about her, but we need to revitalize the state party."
Democrats held Rep. Jim Matheson's 2nd Congressional District seat in the 2002 elections — the state party's top goal. But Democrats lost seats in the Utah Houseand Senate following a redistricting by the GOP Legislature, which was strongly opposed by Holbrook and other party faithful.
According to a recently released analysis by the Gallup polling organization, Utah is the second most Republican state in the nation. And Dunn said it is time for state Democratic delegates to pick a leader who can bring new ideas and energy to the party's top job.
Holbrook, in party chairmanship tradition, has not been paid for her work. But Dunn said should he win he would handle the chairmanship job "on a full-time, paid basis." Former state chairman Dave Jones, at the time also a state House member, paid himself a salary as party chairman, fund-raising specifically for that slot.
"With running two U.S. House races, one thing I know is that I can fund-raise, both for the party and for the (chairmanship's post)," said Dunn.
Dunn's announcement still came as a surprise, both to Holbrook and other leading Democrats. It came via an e-mail press release by Utah County Democratic Party chairwoman Nancy Jane Woodside. Woodside announced the agenda for her county party's April 8 organizing convention and said Dunn would be present to announce his candidacy.
Actually, said Dunn, he won't be there. "But other of my supporters will be." Dunn this week ends classwork on a master's degree from the London School of Economics. He'll campaign at various county conventions this spring, returning to England in June to take finals.
He'll spend the summer in Utah campaigning for the party chairmanship and write his thesis later in the year, he said.
Dunn was the Democratic nominee in a tough race against Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, in 2000 in the 3rd District. He lost, but ended up raising more money in the race than Cannon.
After redistricting— and moving from Rose Park to Park City — Dunn ran for the 1st Congressional District in 2002. He lost the primary election to advertising executive Dave Thomas. Thomas was then crushed by Republican Rob Bishop in the race to fill retiring Rep. Jim Hansen's seat.
Holbrook said she's proud of the record she's amassed in six years of overseeing the party. She said the party is financially healthy and she's already started recruiting candidates for the 2004 election, which includes races for U.S. Senate, governor, U.S. House and the Utah Legislature.
"We're going to announce a major new development for the party later this week. A lot is going on. I realize that after an election" where the party losses some seats there's "some talk about change" in party leadership, she said. "But that isn't always the best thing to do."
Dunn, 32, said Holbrook has worked hard "at a thankless job." But he said it is time for new blood.
Utah Democrats went through a painful chairmanship race in 1989, when Kelly Atkinson, then a Utah House leader, ran against Peter Billings Jr., a local attorney. Atkinson was strongly backed by labor union members, long the financial and manpower strengths of Utah Democrats. Billings was supported by non-labor delegates and the late Gov. Scott M. Matheson, a group that AFL-CIO president Eddie Mayne called the "white wine and cheese Democrats."
Both Dunn and Holbrook said they don't see similar splits should it end up a Dunn/Holbrook race. "I had labor support in my two congressional races. But Meg has labor support, too," said Dunn. "We both hope it doesn't turn out to be a nasty (chairmanship) race like the other one was."
Holbrook said she doesn't have to decide to file for several more weeks. Todd Taylor, longtime party executive director, said chairman candidates have to file with the party before the first county convention in early April. The state convention won't be held until August, although a final date has not been set.
On the GOP side, current party chairman Joe Cannon, chairman of Geneva Steel, says he plans to run again for another two-year term. No one has yet announced a challenge, although the right wing of the party has criticized some of Cannon's actions in the past.