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Shout It!

Don’t just whisper it

I took a detour on a dirt road off Highway 6 in the Castle Country of Utah to capture the sunrise just beginning to outline the spectacular rock formations in the distance. I stopped on the side of the road, grabbed my camera and stepped out of the car. Not more than 6 feet in front of me, the sage rustled on what was a windless morning. Most likely it’s a pine chipmunk, I thought, and quickly adjusted my camera settings for the sunrise. The bushes rustled again and rather than a chipmunk, I was startled by a coyote jumping straight at me. In midair, he took a defensive position, landing with his weight on his haunches, front legs stiff, ready for my next move. We stared at each other just long enough to make a decision. I chose to stand my ground and take aim. I caught one blurry photo before he made his choice, bolted across the road and disappeared.

Dorothy Engelman thinks some Utah Democrats are that skittish. She lives in St. George, Utah, on the edge of the Mohave Desert, which is more than 350 miles to the southwest from where I am in 9-Mile Canyon. I met her when she was a first-time delegate on her way to the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

Dorothy is the chair of the Washington County Democrats, who grew up near Detroit, Mich., and taught school there for 20 years. After their retirement, she and her husband, Gary, traveled and lived on a boat for seven years. They settled in St. George three years ago.

St. George, population 72,897, was one of the first Mormon settlements after Salt Lake City. Church founder Brigham Young established the community during the American Civil War to grow cotton and supplement the limited supply coming from the east. Nicknamed “Utah’s Dixie,” it is now home to several high-end health spas and destination golf resorts.

Nearly 60 percent of Utah’s residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and 80 percent of Mormons are Republicans. Even though he is a former member of the LDS church, living in Utah was a political adjustment for Dorothy and Gary.

She remembers being at an art fair shortly after moving to St. George. She said something of a liberal bent to one of the vendors, which prompted the vendor to ask, “You’re a Democrat? I thought I was the only one.” 

Dorothy now knows many more progressives in her town, but she still feels that people are often afraid to express liberal views.  They fear risking vandalism if they display an Obama bumper sticker on a car, for example. She isn’t sure how to help them transcend that feeling, but she proudly displays her affiliation, hoping to start up a conversation.

“You get yourself a small donkey pin and wear it everywhere you go,” Dorothy advises me. “It’s like a silent handshake. It’s amazing how many people comment on it.”

Dorothy grew up in a union family and was herself a member of the teachers’ union.

“In Michigan, I had Democrat in my blood,” she says. “I was a contributor and a volunteer, put a sign in my lawn, but living here is a real challenge.”

Nonetheless she is very hopeful about what’s happening at the local and state level in Utah. In her new role as county chair, she has met many crossovers, people who see viable options in the candidates she has helped to recruit. People tell her that they want to restore balance in the Utah state Legislature and many are willing to vote for Democrats. Another indication of the Democrats growing strength in Washington County is that in the two most recent election cycles, the party recruited candidates for every position. “We have well-qualified, competitive candidates,” says Dorothy, “and they offer a real choice.” 

Dorothy has some new voter contact tools, too. For the first time, volunteers working for local candidates are able to use the interactive calling programs that helped to make the Obama ’08 campaign so successful. Her challenge in the retirement community of St. George is to find volunteers who are comfortable using the programs or willing to learn.

She doesn’t claim credit for the Democrats’ improved chances. “It should be a no brainer,” Dorothy says. “If people voted in their own best interests, they would vote for Obama, but I think what’s happened is that I’ve given people permission.”

“That’s one of my goals,” she says. “To show people that they don’t have to be afraid to say what they believe.”

When I speak with her again by phone after her trip to Charlotte, she is still hoarse and tells me her hands are swollen from shouting and clapping for the speakers, but after experiencing the energy at her first convention, she feels much more positive about her chances. She is encouraging people not to whisper, but to shout out their hopes for the future and insists that she and her volunteers can see blue veins in the red rocks of southern Utah. 

See an interactive map of religious affiliations at http://religions.pewforum.org/maps