OGDEN — Losing elections, regularly playing second fiddle to Republicans can take a toll.
“Absolutely,” says Oscar Mata, former executive director of the Weber County Democratic Party and a party activist. “It is frustrating.”
But even in the face of GOP dominance in Weber County and across Utah, he keeps fighting. He sees Democrats as the party of the working classes, noting the bootstrap story of his dad, who immigrated here from Honduras, worked hard and is now a U.S. citizen. Beyond that, he can’t stomach the sort of rhetoric coming from the Republican president.
“I would never align with a party that supports Donald Trump,” he said.
No doubt, it can be tough waving the Democratic Party banner in a red place like Utah. Democrats don’t hold any partisan elected posts in Weber County, not at the county or state level, and they haven’t won a state post since 2008, a decade ago, when Neil Hansen prevailed in the race for the District 9 Utah House seat, which served central Ogden. Nonetheless, they keep their chins up, feel assured they’re on the right side, and laud what they say is a solid slate of candidates across Weber County for elections this year, particularly for the Utah House.
“Even though it looks difficult, we’ve had a lot of close races over the years. I’ve never lost hope in the party,” said Zach Thomas, chairman of the Weber County Democratic Party. “We’re never giving up.”
Hansen has heard the argument that in a place like Utah, it’s better to present as a Republican — even if you don’t necessarily identify with the party — because GOPers have the power. “I’ve been asked to switch to Republican,” Mata said.
But they say their political involvement is about more than just having a piece of the power. It’s about values, beliefs, even if their Democratic affiliation means being a perennial underdog.
“How about being loyal to your own interests first and voting for the person who’s going to do something right?” said Hansen, who served 12 years in the Utah House before Republican Jeremey Peterson defeated him for the District 9 post in 2010.
Election solely of Republicans, Hansen maintains, defeats the purpose of checks and balances that come with a two-party system. He pointed his finger with derision at a policy approved in 2014 by the GOP-led Weber County Commission that lets retiring elected leaders from the county take a lump-sum payment on leaving office equivalent to up to five years of health benefits.
With one-party rule “you get a broken government and that’s what we have right now, is a broken government,” said Hansen, vying in elections this year for seat B on the Weber County Commission, now held by GOPer Scott Jenkins.
Since 2014, four departing officials have tapped the policy derided by Hansen, including the three Republican commissioners who approved it and a Democrat, collecting more than $250,000 between them. Just last month, Jenkins and the other two commissioners, all three of them Republicans, approved change phasing the policy out over the next eight years, mindful of critics of the policy.
Mata, for his part, maintains that Republican state lawmakers are beholden to party leaders in the legislature, must toe the party line, while Democrats have reign to be more independent.
“You vote the way they tell you to vote and if you do, you’ll be able to stay in there forever,” he said.
Leaders from the Weber County Republican Party didn’t immediately respond to a query for this story seeking comment.
‘YOU’VE GOT TO WONDER’
As is, all Weber County government officials are Republicans — the three commissioners, the sheriff, the county attorney, the clerk/auditor, the county assessor, the county recorder-surveyor and the county treasurer. Likewise, those serving Weber County in the Utah House, from districts 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 29, and the Utah Senate, from districts 18, 19 and 20, are Republicans.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, representing the 1st District, which includes Weber County, is also a Republican, like the other three U.S. House members serving Utah and the state’s two U.S. senators.
All told, Democrats are outnumbered by Republicans 24-5 in the Utah Senate and 62-13 in the Utah House, with all of the Democrats coming from Salt Lake County-based districts.
“All the Democrats north of Salt Lake are not being heard. It’s all one-party discussion,” said Hansen, who’s vied for other elective posts since leaving the Utah House in 2010, to no avail.
Even so, Ogden has a Democratic presence. Most precincts in the city favored Democrat Hillary Clinton over President Donald Trump, the eventual winner, according to a precinct-by-precinct analysis of the 2016 presidential vote by the New York Times, making Ogden one of the few blue areas of Utah outside the Salt Lake City area. Weber County voters, as in the district overall, favored Republican Bishop over Democrat Peter Clemens in the 2016 U.S. House race, but Bishop’s margin of victory, while wide, wasn’t quite as wide as in the rest of the counties in the district, results show.
Indeed, Democrats in Ogden speculate that the city might have a seat in the Utah House except for gerrymandering in the early 2010s, which ended with different parts of the city in four separate Utah House districts, diluting Democratic power. “It’s the kind of stuff, you’ve got to wonder,” Mata said.
District 7 contains northern Ogden, District 8 contains the East Bench area, District 9 encompasses central Ogden while District 10 covers southern Ogden. “I think (the legislative map) was absolutely drawn to benefit the Republicans,” said Thomas, head of the Democratic Party in the county.
That doesn’t mean Democrats have given up. This cycle, Thomas points to Democrats’ prospects in the races for the District 8, 9, 10 and 11 Utah House races, focused in the Ogden, South Ogden and Washington Terrace areas.
The District 8, 9 and 10 races are open, with the Republican incumbents not seeking re-election. The Democratic contenders in each of the three contests, meanwhile, have waged campaigns previously, one of them a prior victor, District 10 hopeful LaWanna “Lou” Shurtliff, who held the post for 10 years, through 2008.
Mata said it makes for a more dynamic election season heading to the Nov. 6 vote, requiring Republicans to exert more of an effort.
“Say what you want about the Democrats, but this is the first year you have more than one Republican actually having to put in the work,” he said.