Gay activist using Utah as a political laboratory


Jim Dabakis chairs the Utah Democratic Party in Salt Lake City, Utah. Aside from politics, he has a passion for collecting Russian art. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
November 26, 2012

The pork chop in front of Jim Dabakis grew cold as he talked.

And talked.

And talked.

“I have a passion to say stuff,” he explained.

There is, in his defense, a lot of stuff to say. Dabakis is a former Mormon who is gay and wealthy and also happens to be the chairman of the state Democratic Party in this reddest of red states. He believes that even meager gains among significant Mormon populations in swing mountain states such as Nevada and Colorado could have national ramifications in close elections. Utah is his laboratory.

Since becoming chairman in summer 2011, Dabakis has doubled his party’s budget and begun building bridges into Mormon congregations across the state. He credited some of those new Mormon Democrats with reelecting Jim Matheson to the House over the Republican future-star-who-fizzled Mia Love. He launched the group LDS Dems, a national chapter that Mormon Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) inaugurated at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

The state Senate candidate in Saturday’s special election discussed his modest upbringing as a gangly Greek son of a depressed Massachusetts shut-in, his conversion at 11 to Mormonism and his coming out as gay to one of the top apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After a description of his ill-fated missionary gambits at San Francisco Bay Area sporting events, the 58-year-old art dealer explained his decision decades ago to leave Brigham Young University and his adoptive faith for a life as a radio talk-show host, television personality, gay activist, gadfly, collector of Russian art and political player who made a temporary home and lasting fortune in St. Petersburg.

But what Dabakis really wants to talk about are his efforts to make the Democratic Party — and himself — viable in a state where liberals are a peculiar people, where more than 70 percent of voters are Mormon, and where the state legislature, governorship and both U.S. Senate seats are Republican sinecures.

“There is a pragmatic issue here,” Dabakis said, describing the traditional Democratic strategy of anti-Mormonism as wrongheaded. “As long as that continues, we’ll be the party that has no power,” he said.

Many Republicans dismiss Dabakis as a talk-show loudmouth. But others admire his approach.

“He doesn’t like me, but I kind of like him,” said Orrin G. Hatch, Utah’s senior Republican U.S. senator, who is also Mormon. “He has a tough job, but he has handled it better, in my opinion, than any Democratic chairman in my 36 years.”

A key to Dabakis’s recruitment of plausible candidates is his relationship with powerbrokers in a church that many gay-rights activists have written off.

In 2009, the Mormon Church aggressively and successfully supported Proposition 8, which called for banning gay marriage in California. The blowback was intense.

“Prop. 8 was a catastrophe for them,” he said. The church may have come to the same conclusion. Dabakis describes receiving an unexpected call from the church to “get together” even though the church had rebuffed such entreaties from him for more than a decade.

The talks bore fruit. In November 2011, church spokesman Michael Otterson spoke in favor of an anti-discrimination ordinance in Salt Lake’s city council. The church also took no visible part in opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington. “I believe them when they say they simply have not gotten involved since Prop. 8,” Dabakis said.

Otterson said the relationship with Dabakis and discussions on gay issues reflected that although the faith has its doctrinal standards, “we can still have mutual respect. We can still be inclusive.”

Although Dabakis is no longer a Mormon, he says the church played a pivotal and positive role in his life. He and his three sisters grew up in Springfield, Mass., where his father worked as a machinist and his mother, afflicted with mental illness, rarely left her room. Some Mormon kids from a nearby church took notice of the 11-year-old’s lanky 5-foot-11 frame and invited him to play on the church team, which allowed one non-Mormon player on the floor at a time. All was well until a better non-Mormon player entered the picture and ate up Dabakis’s court time.

“So the coach came to me and he said, ‘Well, Jimmy, there’s a way you can play,’ ” said Dabakis, who went home and asked his mother if he could be baptized to play on the team.

“ ‘You know you’re Greek Orthodox,’ ” Dabakis recalled her saying before giving her consent. “ ‘Be home by 5, and don’t tell your father.’ ”

His father eventually found out but appreciated the strong foundation the church provided his son. In 1971, he enrolled in BYU and stopped in at church headquarters in Temple Square to share his concerns about his sexual orientation.

“Does this have to do with boys or girls?” Dabakis recounted the receptionist asking. “Boys,” he answered, and he was led to the office of Mark Petersen, one of the church’s 12 apostles, who told him to study and do a mission and that things would work out. Dabakis asked whether he had to tell his teachers or bishops.

“No, it’s between us,” Peterson encouragingly responded. “And if they have any problem with it, have them call me.”

Dabakis was sent on a mission to the San Francisco Bay Area. In an early sign of the panache he has brought to his professional and political career, Dabakis replaced the traditional door knocking with public relations stunts. Not all of them went well.

At a Golden State Warriors basketball game, Dabakis arranged for a halftime raffle to win a manual instructing families how to spend time together and live more righteously. Directly beforehand, an appliance store held a raffle for a washing machine and refrigerator. The winner of the manual, who ran down the stands in “The Price Is Right” style, thought she, too, had won a major appliance.

“What is this s---?” she said upon receiving the manual.

“Cut the mike! Cut the mike!” Dabakis urged.

Back at BYU, Dabakis increasingly felt out of place and left the school to pursue his dream of becoming a radio talk-show host in Salt Lake City, where he soon became a well-known personality. After several of his friends died from AIDS-related illnesses in the early 1980s, he started speaking out and gave the epidemic a face by bringing people with HIV onto the show.

He and his partner, Stephen Justeson, began traveling through the Eastern Bloc and Russia, where Dabakis had been organizing tours for years. (“I didn’t know anything about Russia,” he acknowledged.) The couple collected art by then-relatively unknown painters such as Arkady Plastov and the Tkachev Brothers and moved to St. Petersburg in 1991. For three years, Dabakis taught business at the local university and invested in the newly opened markets. (“We ended up being one of the biggest sellers of urea.”) In 1994, he returned to Salt Lake City a rich man, invested in his old radio stations and sold them for a bundle after deregulation.

That reputation as a successful businessman has burnished his credibility with the business-friendly church. But his credentials with liberals are also impeccable. He served as a founder and first chairman of the Pride Center and Equality Utah. He didn’t exactly deny the whispers in Washington that he turned down the top job at the gay lobbying powerhouse the Human Rights Campaign. “They got the right man,” he demurred.

These seemingly separate strains came together in the post-Proposition 8 glasnost and have formed the Mormon-outreach agenda that has been central to Dabakis’s campaigns for party chairman and now state senator.

“As I’ve met with the church, I’ve said ‘Look, I don’t come with a clenched fist,’ ” Dabakis said, finally cutting into the pork chop. “ ‘A lot of the good in my life came from the training and the embrace and the wonder that you guys picked up this kid off the streets in Massachusetts.’ ”

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