ST. GEORGE — Summer comes early to St. George. Shortly after you step from an air-conditioned car, clothing begins to stick to skin and you crave shade, including the shady awnings of Main Street shops.

But that's not where you find Claudia Wright.

The candidate for Utah's 2nd District seat is standing in front of a group of supporters at Ancestor Square for an hourlong event beginning with a speech before moving to question-and-answer mode.

Wright wears jeans, sandals and a vest over a white shirt. She's right at home in southern Utah, where she visits at least two or three times a year.

The group is small, about 20 or so, but Wright is counting on them to each tell five friends to cast votes for her in the June 22 primary election. And if those five friends tell five friends, and if that happens throughout the 2nd Congressional District, Wright can envision a win over incumbent Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.

The most common criticism Wright hears is that people don't believe she can win. She knows it's an uphill battle that continues to get steeper.

Matheson is a sixth-generation Utahn, a popular five-term congressman and the son of a popular former state governor. His family is well-known; hers is not.

He's well-funded, having spent more than 40 times the money she has on this campaign — in large part because she has declined to accept donations from political action committees.

It's that lack of funding that keeps Wright from reaching potential constituents through television and radio. A campaign commercial has been produced, and Wright is trying to raise enough money to get it on the air.

Wright said that that's understandable. She is campaigning on a platform of election and banking reforms.

"I'm trying to run the campaign we should have," she said. "Campaigns shouldn't cost millions of dollars."

Wright strives to be the kind of change she advocates, so she hit the road June 9 with her partner, Stephanie Pace, and friend Jill Jones for a weeklong visit to the district, which includes eastern and southern Utah.

Standing in front of small groups, she asked them to help send her to Washington.

It's the very picture of representative democracy: The plea to the public to give a candidate a chance.

Occasionally, someone asks Wright if being a lesbian could cost her the election.

"There are always people who are going to vote against me because of that," she said. "Utah voters are sophisticated enough to look at public policy."

At stops in Cedar City, Rockville, St. George, Kayenta, Kanab, Moab, Torrey and Price, Wright told her story about how a retired school teacher forced a five-term congressman into his first Democratic primary election.

A natural teacher

From an early age, Wright knew what she wanted to be. The decision, at age 15, to become a teacher drew some light ridicule from her classmates at Olympus High School.

Few teens, after all, would admit wanting to join the ranks of homework- and test-givers.

Coupling a fierce love of politics with a teaching degree, Wright went on to teach advanced placement U.S. history, U.S. government and politics and European history at Cottonwood High School.

Ann Harrison, who still teaches at Cottonwood High, called Wright "gifted" and "well-versed in her field."

"Students could listen to her for hours discuss the topics that she was passionate about," Harrison said.

But it wasn't just Wright's lectures, it was also the connections she made with students that endeared them to her, she said.

"She was so keenly interested in their lives and in their learning and in their developing personally as well as intellectually," Harrison said.

Nancy Joyce, one of Wright's former students, agrees.

"She presented ideas so clearly and she really focused on getting us to think for ourselves," said Joyce, who works as a German-English translator. "Because of her, I became very interested in history and political science and even philosophy."

That was Joyce's first time as a high school student to become so engaged that she became interested in reading outside of class.

"I took that with me throughout college," she said.

Harrison said Wright's connections didn't apply only to students.

Wright and Harrison still see each other socially. Wright's prolific backyard garden includes 24 tomato plants. Many of the fresh tomatoes will find their way into Harrison's salsa this year. For her contribution, Wright gets some jars of homemade salsa.

Deep political roots

Politics was a common topic around Wright's family dinner table — for a time.

"When I was 12, I couldn't understand why my parents would not vote for (John F. Kennedy)," she said, adding that she was even more surprised when they voted for Richard Nixon in a later campaign. "I've always been a Democrat."

For her, growing up in the 1960s, it was easy to be a Democrat, she said.

There was the civil rights movement, a women's movement, an ecological movement and a peace movement.

"It was the best and worst of times. There was a growing social consciousness, but they kept shooting all of your heroes," she said, referring to assassinations of Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

There was plenty of political fodder for discussions around the dinner table. So much so, in fact, that the inevitable arguments led her auto mechanic father to sometimes ban politics as a dinner topic.

She worked on political campaigns before she could vote and has maintained involvement throughout her life.

Health care matters

Before she responded to a Craigslist advertisement seeking a candidate to run against Matheson, Wright was one of the co-founders of Everybody-in.org, a local group that advocated during 2009 for a single-payer health care system.

When her brother was 12, he became the youngest person in the world at the time to begin dialysis treatments, Wright said.

The costs exhausted her father's health insurance until he had to refinance the family home to get money to pay for more treatments. Her father paid off the home in May 1980 but died two months later.

Her mother died in 1986 after falling down stairs. A doctor had wanted her mother to get a CT scan before the fall to diagnose some problems, but she didn't have enough money. A CT scan after the fall revealed a tumor that had been putting pressure on her brain.

That left Wright to care for her brother, who died at age 42.

"It's an interesting labor of love and compassion," she said about caring for someone who is terminally ill. "You have to live through that to understand."

It's that kind of compassion she wants to bring to Washington to continue fighting for health care reform. "It looks very different in life than on a government piece of paper," she said.

Wright debated Matheson Tuesday on the radio. The two candidates will tape a debate for KSL television, which will be broadcast Sunday at 9 a.m.

Tuesday's primary election will resolve the challenge she has put to voters: Can she be the one to turn up the heat on Washington?

More online: Wright's candidate questionnaire responses

e-mail: jdougherty@desnews.com; jaskar@desnews.com