District 1 is possibly the state's most diverse, urban and Democratic legislative district. It's also a district currently controlled by a Republican.
Since Sen. James Evans, R-Salt Lake, narrowly defeated Democrat Nisa Sisneros two years ago, Democratic leaders have looked anxiously to this year, when they would have a chance to unseat a person they consider an unwelcome guest in one of the few districts they feel they legitimately own.
The focus for Democrats was apparent from the filing deadline, when three candidates filed to run and two — political newcomer Pasa Tukuafu and former Rep. Fred Fife — wound up in the party's only legislative primary, which Fife won.
While Democrats see the district as a relative stronghold, there are still significant challenges to overcome. After all, barely more than 500 people voted in the primary, compared to almost 20,000 in each of the two Republican Senate primaries, although the GOP also had a governor's primary to attract voters. As a candidate, Evans has an almost 5-to-1 cash advantage and a reputation among both parties as one of the hardest-working candidates. Additionally, while Democrats push for political balance, the Republicans can tout ethnic diversity because Evans is one of only two black legislators while Fife is white.
A key demographic for the candidates, in fact, will be minority voters, especially Hispanics, who comprise a quickly growing segment of the district's population, said Luz Robles, a Democrat and co-chairwoman of the nonpartisan Utah Hispanic Legislative Task Force. It is also a group with which Evans "did a lot of outreach work" during his first two years in the Legislature.
Still, Robles said it is essential for Democrats to control the district, both for the good of its constituents and the state as a whole.
"I believe we need some balance in the Legislature, period," she said. "I mean party-wise, number one, and ethnic-wise. Our Legislature doesn't reflect the diversity in our state."
Sylvia Haro, a Republican and co-chairwoman of the Utah Hispanic Legislative Task Force with Robles, said that she expects the work Evans has done with the Hispanic community to draw the diverse voters to the incumbent. She said she has not seen Fife doing nearly as much work with the minority populations, which are important for winning the district.
"It is one of those areas where the Hispanic vote could really make a difference," Haro said.
Although he is very aware of both parties' focus on his race, Evans is not as interested in the partisan tug-of-war, just as he does not want to see race or religion included in the debates about the contest. Instead, he wants to focus on what he says are the pertinent issues — protecting neighborhoods and boosting the economy of the typically poorer west side — and allow voters to choose the best senator for their district, not the best party.
"My opponent wants to win this seat to benefit a political party," he said. "I want to win it for the people of Senate District 1."
A self-made businessman who owns, among other things, Checkline franchises and real estate, the 41-year-old Evans grew up in South Carolina but relocated to Utah after he "fell in love with this part of the country" while serving in the U.S. Air Force. Now, he considers himself an integral part of a community that is quickly reshaping itself, and he wants to ensure that it is done right.
To accomplish that, he has worked to get new homeowners for rental properties with absentee landlords and vacant houses through state and federal housing assistance programs. He also wants to encourage retail development around those neighborhoods, especially with locally owned businesses.
"As our neighborhoods change, we have to be more welcoming to our new neighbors," Evans said. "We want to make sure our neighborhoods continue to be great."
Unlike Evans, Fife does not shy away from the partisan debate, nor does he avoid emphasizing why the district needs a Democrat representing it.
"The biggest issue I've heard is that they (voters) want to see a Democrat in this seat," Fife said. "They feel, like I do, that the Democrats better address the needs of this district."
For the former state representative, education is the key issue for the state and especially for his district, where children often do not receive the necessary help at home because both parents need to work. To compensate for that, he said they need more after-school programs, reduction of class sizes and a better focus on at-risk students.
"Kids down here have some struggles just to get to school, while kids in other areas are taught that they're expected to go," he said. "Kids over here need an equal chance, and they need the personal attention. Their parents work extremely hard to make ends meet, but they can't do everything."
As for the challenge of taking on the hard-working Evans, Fife doubts that he will lose because of a lack of effort.
"I'm walking four days a week, two hours a night," Fife said. "That's about all a guy can handle. I'm not sure James Evans will catch me."