Most people relax by seeing a movie, catching a ball game or grabbing a bite to eat. Jim Dabakis unwinds by spending three hours per week with the students at Rose Park Elementary School.
Dabakis, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, says those three hours are something he can’t go without.
“I see those faces and I feel their energy and enthusiasm,” Dabakis said. “I look at Utah’s shameful graduation rate where almost 50 percent of Hispanic kids aren’t going to graduate. I look at the faces of those kindergardeners sitting there and think, ‘Which half of these energetic, exciting, interesting kids are doomed? Where does that lead them? What effect does that have on the rest of society?’ That is what motivates me.”
Dabakis, now a fixture in Utah politics, was originally a transplant to the state with a different career path in mind. He grew up in Massachusetts before moving Utah at age 17, where he enrolled at BYU. Dabakis studied communications with an empahsis in broadcast journalism and after graduating, went on to host a talk-radio show in Salt Lake City for 14 years. It was there that he decided to enter the political fray firsthand.
“I always liked politics, but that experience turned me into a a real partisan political guy,” Dabakis said.
Dabakis was elected chairman of the Utah Democratic Party in 2011, then chosen for a vacant Utah Senate seat in December 2012. He also plans to run for re-election to his chairman position June 20 at the Utah Democratic Party Convention.
Dabakis has been working to make the Democratic Party relevant in Utah since achieving public office — something he admits is not easy in a heavily conservative state. In Utah, almost 72 percent of the voters are LDS. Only 7 percent of the practicing Latter-day Saints in Utah self-identify as Democrat, according to a 2008 Trinity College study.
In 2012, Dabakis helped found the LDS Dems Caucus, a political organization for liberal Latter-day Saints that added chapters in seven new states and Washington, D.C., in April.
“We are trying to convince LDS people that despite Mitt Romney being at the top of the ticket, there really are philosophical issues that if you just look at the issues themselves, a lot of times, more often than not, the LDS mission is more in line with the Democratic party than the Republican,” Dabakis said.
Brian King, a Utah state legislator and Democrat, has been working alongside Dabakis for several years with the same goal in mind. King said he was nervous at first to to be working with Dabakis because of his heavy involvement in policies concerning the LGBT community — a divisive set of issues by all counts — but after one phone conversation with Dabakis, King was convinced of his leadership.
“At the end of the 45 minutes I told him, ‘Mr. Dabakis, I don’t know who else is going to run for chair of the Democratic Party in Utah but you have my vote,'” King said. “He impressed me so much with the commitment to the idea that as Democrats we need to reach out to members of the LDS community.”
Both Dabakis and King say their intermediate goal to increase the number of LDS Utahns who self-identify as Democrat to 15 or 20 percent. Debakis believes that with those numbers, the party will be able to win a few more elections.
“We have to convince the LDS people that we are not Satan, and that we have reasonable common sense solutions for Utah’s problems,” Dabakis said.
This past year Dabakis hired BYU student Ben Adar as his intern. They worked together on proposing the Greater Canyonlands Resolution and a statewide non-discrimination employment policy. Neither of these were signed into law during the 2013 legislative session, but Dabakis and his staff believe they are making headway with members of the Republican-controlled legislature.
Adar said Dabakis’ disarming personality is critical for Democrats as they try to negotiate compromises at the state level.
“He was great. He was very personable,” said Adar, a political science major. “I think he has a charisma that a lot of people enjoy. Considering that he’s the state’s Democratic Party Chair, a lot of people (approach him with) the opinion they (are) not going to like him. He can become on good terms with anyone.”