Salt Lake Senate Hopefuls Derek Kitchen, Jennifer Plumb Face A Competitive Primary
State Sen. Jim Dabakis announced his exit from the Legislature earlier this year https://youtu.be/-eQi6I3hil8" target="_blank">in a video that captured the Salt Lake Democrat’s trademark theatrics.
“It’s time for me to make way in a citizen legislature … for some other citizens," he said with an instrumental swell of cellos providing the soundtrack.
As the Legislature’s only openly gay member, Dabakis relished his role as the state’s most outspoken and liberal lawmaker. He didn’t pass much in the way of legislation, but he did amass a loyal following.
Now, ballots are in the mail for the race to replace Dabakis in the competitive Senate District 2 Democratic primary.
Who They Are:
Derek Kitchen is a member of the Salt Lake City Council and rising star in local Democratic circles. He and his husband own Laziz Kitchen, a popular lunch spot downtown. He was also one of the plaintiffs who successfully challenged Utah's ban on gay marriage in 2013.
“My hope is that I can bring that perspective as well as a voice of a millennial and a queer Utahn to the table," he said.
His opponent, Jennifer Plumb, is an emergency room pediatric doctor and community activist. She’s earned praise for the nonprofit she started three years ago called Utah Naloxone, which helps distribute the antidote used to reverse opioid overdoses.
She said her experience makes her well-suited to tackling some of Utah’s biggest problems like youth suicides and access to mental health services.
“I think that we need a continuation of that health care voice in the Senate," she said. "For me, it means honest open dialogues about how broken our system is and how difficult it is for a lot of people to access health care.”
Where They Stand On Issues:
In their first and only debate last week, the two Democrats tackled other hot-button issues such as affordable housing, Medicaid expansion and the controversial crime and drug crackdown known as Operation Rio Grande. Kitchen called the action a mixed bag that needed to happen while Plumb described it as a missed opportunity.
But the two Democrats don’t disagree so much on issues. This is a race largely focused on which Democrat can actually get stuff done in a Legislature dominated by Republicans. Currently, there are only five Democrats in the 29-member Senate.
While neither candidate is critical of Dabakis, both want to find ways to pass or co-sponsor more legislation.
"I think he [Dabakis] took the path of being a voice and of being that point-counterpoint," she said. "For me, I would not be able to fall into that the role that he has. I want to continue to be a voice. I want to be one who continues to call people out. But I'm really results driven.”
Dabakis endorsed Kitchen in the race this week, calling him a bold fighter. Kitchen said he doesn’t plan on being the tip of the spear on every issue, but can work more behind the scenes to build bridges.
"You have to be authentic in your approach as a policymaker," he said. "So figuring out a healthy balance between his bombastic style and my quiet approach, I think, will make me a unique and effective legislator."
How Voters See Them:
Right now, at least, these two candidates both seem progressive. I genuinely feel like District 2 would be in good hands with either of these candidates. It is more just finding which one you jibe better with. — Kyl Myers, Democratic voter
Unlike other Democratic primaries across the country, this race hasn't pitted establishment Democrats against progressives. For many voters, it’s a question of who can be productive.
“Right now, at least, these two candidates both seem progressive," said Kyl Myers, a Democratic voter. "I genuinely feel like District 2 would be in good hands with either of these candidates. It is more just finding which one you jibe better with.”
For Myers that's Derek Kitchen, who she says has a good platform on affordable housing.
“This is something that I’m really nervous about in Salt Lake City as a renter — and not feeling like I’m going to be in a position to own a home anytime soon," she said.
Voter Jennifer Hyde, meanwhile, is a big supporter of Jennifer Plumb. She attended last week’s debate and said Plumb’s work on the frontlines of the opioid epidemic makes her well-suited for the Legislature.
“What we need in a candidate is someone that can cross the aisle — there’s not political lines," hs said. "And, yes, they represent Salt Lake City, but they also represent the state.”
Senate District 2 is considered a safe seat for Democrats, so whoever wins the nomination on June 26 is heavily favored to win the general election. That’s when the real challenge comes: Being a blue lawmaker in a red state.