In January of 2013, the response from the Utah Democratic Party was swift: bring in a special prosecutor from Washington DC to conduct an independent investigation to determine if newly minted Attorney General John Swallow had attempted to cut off a federal investigation in order to protect a campaign donor. These calls came just a day after the story broke and were relentless.
Calls for more open government, campaign finance reform, and, above all else, ethics reform were a common theme from the minority party. Then Chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, Jim Dabakis, went so far as to say “[t]he people of Utah deserve to know if their elected officials are crooks or unethical.”
This is a laudable goal. Our lawmakers must be held to a higher standard, as they are entrusted to create the laws that protect and defend our society from the crooks and the unethical.
Democrats from across the state would use this mantra to varying degrees during the 2014 election. The statement was clear: “We need to clean up government” with the subtext being that “the way to do that is to elect Democrats” and more subtle subtext of “because Democrats are good, moral people.”
It is for this reason that it is disappointing that, four days after documents were released that appear to show that Democratic Representative Justin Miller (Salt Lake City) wrote checks to himself for at least $24,388 and up to $34,750 without consent from the Ben McAdams for Mayor Campaign, that there has been no comment from Utah Democratic Party of any substance.
The closest thing the public has received is an unidentified source reported by Fox 13, that simply stated that it was “an issue between employer and employee.”
It is understandable that the Democratic Party is not interested in attacking one of its own, and it is predictable that they would only want to make definitive statements about resignation only if formal charges are brought before Miller. Utah Democrats could even be excused for not wanting to make harsh statements due to possible civil litigation.
But, if the Utah Democratic Party wants to maintain any shred of credibility in regards to ethics, they need to make a statement that is clear: lawmakers who are (to use former Chairman Dabakis’ words) crooks or unethical are not welcome within the Democratic Party ranks.
A statement such as this is ambiguous enough to ensure proper protection to all parties involved in this particular case while sending a clear promise to the voters of Utah that the Democratic Party will take the proper steps if and when the time comes on this or any other scandal.
As of right now, the silence from the Utah Democratic Party is deafening. With each minute that goes by, one more potential voter loses confidence that Democrats would be any different in addressing ethics as their Republican counterparts.
It is possible that the lack of a statement is due to a lack of outrage from the Utah GOP. After all, a major reason Republican brass have not hit on the issue harder in recent days is quite possibly due to the fact that they don’t have the best track record for condemning recent untoward activities.
If this is the case, the Utah Democratic Party has confused the lack of pressure from their opponents as a lack of pressure from the public in general and the Democratic base in particular.
Though the scandal has hardly consumed the same amount of news time, it none the less is floating in the ether. The one area where Republicans don’t have a complete hold on politics is Salt Lake County. Now, suddenly, it appears that one well positioned Democrat has stumbled and the Democratic Party has remained quiet on the issue. Even if Miller is found free and clear, it would not stop Republican candidates from pointing to it in future elections – all they would have to do is throw in a few words such as “alleged” into campaign literature and, all of a sudden, the issue is placed into the voting public’s mind. With the lack of a statement from Democrats, they are creating a gaping hole in an already thin roster of tactics.
The real pain for the Utah Democratic Party, however, will come from donors large and small, and volunteers.
If nothing else, Utah Democrats are an interesting and idealistic bunch. Constantly faced with defeat, Utah Dem volunteers and donors are similar to devout church goers – they don’t care that other religions have more numbers, they know in their heart of hearts that Democrats have all the answers, if only people would listen to their gospel and see the light. This type of support is nearly unshakeable; but, once it does falter, it is nearly impossible to win back those who have lost their religion.
A surefire way to make people lose their religion, is to have the pulpit remain quiet on discrepancies between doctrine and practice.
When the Utah Democratic Party consistently preaches good government but fails to make even the most basic of statements when the issue arises in their own ranks, it makes people wonder if party leadership truly practice what they preach, or if they simply ask Republicans to do as they say, not as they do.
If Democrats want to maintain any chance of electoral success, they can’t afford to lose a single volunteer or donor. By remaining silent, Democratic leaders are eroding an already small base of support.
Specific statements may be premature, but some sort of reaffirmation that the Utah Democratic Party at least pretends to care about ethics when the rubber meets the road goes a long way. A general statement affirming a commitment towards ethics reform will at the very least maintain the status quo and might actually do something to move the electoral needle slightly more to the left in the state.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of UPC or its staff.