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Sen. Gene Davis faces something he hasn’t in decades — a Democratic primary challenger

Gene Davis Primary Challenger, Gene Davis in his office, May 24, 2022
Ivana Martinez
Sen. Gene Davis sits at his desk in the Utah State Senate building. He believes people in his district are concerned about issues like growth, education and other social issues.

In his office in the Utah State Senate building, there’s an illustration of Sen. Gene Davis. It features his signature white mustache with the words, “The only thing we have to fear is the Utah Legislature.”

Davis has been in the Legislature for 35 years. That makes him the longest-serving person in either chamber right now — by a long shot. He joined the House of Representatives in 1987 and started in the Senate in 1999.

So, what’s motivated the Salt Lake County senator to stick around? He said, simply, serving the people.

“That's been my goal all along,” Davis said. “To bring good government and to represent the people of the district. They're the ones that give me the job.”

Over the years, the 76-year-old has learned how to navigate the Legislature as a Democrat in a Republican supermajority. He said he’s pushed progressive issues forward — like Medicaid expansion — which he sponsored multiple times before the public voted for it through a 2018 ballot initiative.

When it comes to re-election, one of the things that’s worked in his favor is that Davis has never faced a primary challenger.

That is, until this year.

“One of the reasons I'm running is I kind of feel the urgency of the situation that we're in,” said Nate Blouin, Davis’ challenger. “Talking about climate, the economy, education. I don't see the sense of urgency in our Legislature that I think the moment deserves.”

Blouin is a 33-year-old environmental advocate who originally moved to Utah in 2009 to ski. He said he’s also taking on Davis because he doesn’t like the way the senator has voted on certain issues.

He pointed to Davis’ 2018 vote on medical cannabis when he was the only Democrat to side with Republicans to replace the voter-approved ballot initiative. Blouin also cites a 2017 resolution advocating for the shrinking of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Davis was the only Democrat to support that as well.

“I think it was important to step up and feel like I had a voice on some of the things that I'm passionate about,” Blouin said.

Gene Davis Primary Challenger, Nate Blouin, Feb. 19, 2022
Emily Means
Nate Blouin, Davis' Democratic primary challenger, stakes a campaign sign in a voter's yard in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City. He said when he's talked to voters, they're concerned about air quality, education and affordable housing.

Party-line votes

Blouin and others complain that Davis votes against his party more often than his colleagues.

Adam Brown, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, said generally, Democrats and Republicans vote the same way on most bills. So, the best place to judge a voting record is when an issue falls along party lines, where Republicans and Democrats are at odds.

Brown analyzed how often Davis went against his party on those votes during this year’s general session.

“About a quarter of the time that Senate Republicans voted opposite Senate Democrats on the bill, he was voting with the Republicans,” Brown said.

That’s more than his Democratic colleagues, except for Sen. Karen Mayne, who was absent most of the session. Davis voted with Republicans on bills ranging from school book bans to rules for public comment in open meetings.

On the other hand, he joined the rest of his party in strongly opposing a bill that bans trans girls from competing in school sports.

That’s just for one session, though. Over the past 15 years, Brown’s analysis shows Davis’ party-line support has ranged from 68% to 96%.

Davis defends the times he broke with his party. He said his district, which spans Sugar House on the east side of Salt Lake City to West Valley City and south to Murray, isn’t 100% Democratic.

“Do I take ultra-conservative votes?” he said. “No. Do I take an anti votes on progressivity? No. I try to do what's right to move the state forward. And I think I've been vindicated on many, many of those votes.”

Floor sponsorships

Another way to look at how Davis operates in the Legislature is how many bills he helps sponsor — which Brown said isn’t many. Because there are so many more members of the House compared to the Senate, Brown said floor sponsorships are an important part of a senator’s strategy.

He did note that House members, both Republicans and Democrats, are more likely to seek Republicans in the Senate to sponsor their bills since that’s the party in power.

Gene Davis Primary Challenger, Gene Davis office illustration, May 24, 2022
Ivana Martinez
In his office, Davis has community awards for his years of public service, photos of nature, and this illustration of him standing in front of the State Capitol.

But Brown said Democratic representatives do sometimes go to party colleagues in the Senate — just not really to Davis.

“It's suggestive that either he is not actively seeking out alliances in the other chamber, which is weird because as somebody who has a slightly less liberal voting record, it seems like there's an opportunity to work with Republicans in the House,” Brown said. “Or maybe it just seems that he's not seen as an ally that can carry their cause.”

Davis said it’s nice to be a floor sponsor, but he doesn’t prioritize it.

“It's not important,” he said. “The legislation that I sponsor is important to me. Most or all of the legislation that I have sponsored is something that has been brought to me out of the community.”

A question of character

Becky Moss is a lifelong Democrat who has been Davis’ constituent for a long time.

She said she hasn’t agreed with every one of his votes — but he’s always taken her calls.

“I think the thing that I like the most is every time that I make a phone call or send an email, he responds,” Moss said. “Now it’s texts. He responds, and he answers my questions honestly.”

Davis believes that’s served him well during his legislative career and that his constituents have re-elected him again and again because of his character.

“I'm honest and forthright with them,” he said. “I like to listen to people, hear what their problems are, and then take a step forward in trying to set a path to solve that.”

Moss stands by her candidate — even when questions about his character have come up.

Last year, a former legislative staffer alleged in a social media post that Davis sexually harassed her, and she still maintains her accusation. Davis told KUER he believes his comments were misinterpreted and said he apologizes if he misspoke.

His campaign said the Salt Lake County Democratic Party looked into the allegations. A party representative said they can’t comment about investigations per their governing documents.

Regardless, Davis said he isn’t worried about it impacting his race.

Both Davis and Blouin collected enough signatures to land on the June primary ballot. But during the Salt Lake County Democratic Convention, delegates voted overwhelmingly to support Blouin.

Blouin said it shows voters are ready for a change.

For his part, Davis stands by his record.

“I've been a part of the prosperity of the state of Utah,” he said. “There's more work to be done. That's the reason I'm up here today is to work for the people. That's what I do.”

The primary election is June 28.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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