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.’ ”