Could Utah Turn Blue In 2018? This Senate Candidate Aims To Find Out
An interview with Salt Lake City Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, challenging Orrin Hatch for US Senate
In the 2016 election, Utah, one of the most reliably red places in America, shocked everyone by becoming a swing state for a few weeks. Donald Trump was wildly unpopular among the predominantly Mormon population and hometown hero Evan McMullin seemed poised to carve off a chunk of disenfranchised conservative voters.
Sadly, we know how this particular chapter in the story ends, but Democrats shouldn’t write Utah off just yet. Nate Silver, the political data guru behind FiveThirtyEight, claims that by some standards, Utah already is a blue state.
“In some ways, it increasingly has the markers of a blue state, meaning high education levels, big tech sector, young population. So you can kind of envision a world in eight years, 12 years, 16 years in which Utah behaves more like Colorado or something, right?”- Nate Silver, Interview for Deseret News
Nobody knows this better than Jenny Wilson, a fifth-generation Utahn who has decided to run for US Senate in 2018. She’ll challenge Senator Orrin Hatch, up for his eighth consecutive term in Congress. Yep. He’s been warming that seat for forty years and is now the longest-serving Republican Senator in US History. Hatch, now 83, has often seemed out of touch recently and a majority of his constituents have expressed concern over his intent to return to Congress.
An incumbent that’s currently third in line for the presidency will be a heavy lift to defeat, but Jenny Wilson’s political pedigree is up to the task. Jenny is the daughter of former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson and she’s currently serving a second six-year term on the Salt Lake County Council as the first woman elected in 2005. She has plenty of political experience in Washington as well, both as press secretary to U.S. Rep. Les AuCoin (D-OR) and as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Bill Orton (D-UT).
And if you think Jenny’s resume ends there, pull up a chair and get cozy. We’ll be awhile. Not only did she earn her masters degree in public administration from Harvard, Jenny helped organize the first Sundance Film Festival. She’d later go on to serve as Director of Volunteers for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee of the Olympic Winter Games of 2002. More recently she’s been the Executive Director of Institutional Advancement at the Moran Eye Center, filmmaker, and even a small business owner. All of this experience has produced a powerhouse of a woman who is deeply committed not just to political service, but to the state of Utah.
Orrin Hatch has met his match in 2018 and her name is Jenny Wilson.
Lots of women were inspired to run for office as a result of last year’s election, but you’ve actually been in politics your whole life in one way or another. Tell us a little bit about what’s motivating you to run for the Senate. Why now?
As I age, I become more and more frustrated with the Federal government. I worked for Congress in the 90s as Chief of Staff to U.S. Rep. Bill Orton (D-UT). I feel uniquely qualified to represent Utah given I understand what every day people face in Utah. I am a mother, elected official who has delivered locally, and also know how the Federal government and Congress work.
Is there a moment in your life when you knew you’d be pursuing politics as a career? Some pivotal event when you thought- this is it for me.
I have always woven in and out of politics, having served in the private sector, as well as for all levels of government — federal, state and local. My first elected position was the Salt Lake County Council in 2004. After completing my six-year term, I really wanted to get back to the private sector. I chose not to run for re-election. I went to work in a senior position at the University of Utah, but could not shake my interest in serving in government. I chose to go back to the office I previously served in and was reelected in 2014. It was being out of government having served that I realized my passion and highest calling was working to support people so that they could have fuller and better lives. Government does that when it operates well and I am proud to serve.
You’ve worked alongside some fairly famous and influential people through the years. Who do you think has inspired you the most?
I’ve had a lot of amazing mentors. I was especially inspired by Robert Redford’s vision and Rep. Bill Orton’s intelligence. I also had some great female mentors when I worked in Washington D.C. who I learned from as well.
I saw a poll the other day that said 80% of Utahans think Orrin Hatch should not run for reelection. So far, Orrin hasn’t given any indication he’ll be retiring, although he did walk back a promise to leave the Senate back in 2012. Why do you think such a large portion of voters believe Hatch should step down?
The state has become literally a different place since Orrin Hatch was elected in 1976. All the while, he has remained the same. Utah in 2017 is a dynamic and multifaceted place. To address its potential and challenges in future years, we need a strong and visionary leader. His better days in the Senate are behind him.
A Democrat hasn’t won a seat in the Senate in Utah since the 1970s. What do you say to people who believe Utah is a red state that isn’t flippable? What will be your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge will be to get people to pay attention early enough to recognize I am a strong and capable leader who cares deeply about them and their needs. Utah is better served with diversity and a fresh voice in its Federal delegation. I represent that.
What are the issues you think are important to Utah that aren’t currently being championed by our reps in the Senate? What would you focus on as a Senator?
Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee focus on the “role of the Federal government” to the detriment of allowing the Federal government to actually SERVE Utah’s citizens. Meanwhile, state and local government is left to pick up the pieces. One example is that the forest service has no funds to apply to trail maintenance and our Wasatch Canyons are overrun. I appropriated $300,000 in County funds a few months ago to build a bathroom up Cottonwood Canyon on Forest Service land. Why are our parks and canyons receiving so little?
Another example is how little the Federal government compensates rural Utah for its ownership of Federal Land. For example, Garfield County is the size of Connecticut and most of its land is not taxable, yet the Federal government only provides around $850,000 annually to support that County. That’s not enough to run basic government services for those residents. Additionally, I would hope to focus on health issues, such as health care, mental health, substance abuse and healthy family relationships. Our residents are great people who need to have support in these areas in order to be productive and enjoy stable work and family life. Another area that I have worked in and have expertise in is the Federal budget. We need to control costs, eliminate wasteful programs and work towards a balanced budget. Every year I work across party lines to pass a budget at Salt Lake County. Why can’t the Federal government do the same?
When you get elected and go to Washington, what’ll be one thing from back home that you’ll miss the most?
Regular day to day life. To serve in the U.S. Senate would be an amazing personal honor and accomplishment, yet it certainly has a cost. Having served as a Chief of Staff for Congress, I fully understand how my life would change. I would work every day to serve Utah’s citizens and move the ball forward on their behalf. My down time would be limited, but I would have a great reward in delivering for Utah families.