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About Utah: Jen Seelig came to Utah and made history

SALT LAKE CITY — American history is full of examples that public office is open to anyone, from anywhere. Look at Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, or Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Or, closer to home, look at Jennifer Seelig.

Want improbable? When she was freshly graduated from the University of Louisville in her home state of Kentucky in 1993, Seelig was talked into coming to live in Salt Lake by her boyfriend at the time. She promised herself she’d give Utah a year. So far she’s exceeded that by two decades, during which time she’s served four terms as a member of the House of Representatives and the first female minority leader in the House’s 163-year history.

As Seelig says, “Crazy, right?”

Crazier yet, when she arrived in Utah she had no experience or interest in government. She was an English literature major at Louisville. Before the Utah detour, her plan was to go to graduate school at Duke and become a writer or publisher.

But something unexpected happened after she took a job as a receptionist at the Salt Lake City Council office.

She became fascinated with public policy and politics.

She switched her graduate school major at the University of Utah to public administration and became a Democratic Party delegate in House District 23, the Rose Park section of Salt Lake City where she lives.

When the incumbent House rep in that district, Duane Bourdeaux, announced he was retiring in 2006, the party asked Seelig if she’d run in his place.

She said no thanks. They asked again. She said no thanks again. Seven times they asked. Six times she said no thanks.

“So that’s how I got into politics,” Seelig said as she sat down with the Deseret News to talk about her eventful time in Utah House politics. Her run is almost over. Dec. 31 will be her last day in office. After that she plans to return to the University of Utah and complete the doctorate she was working on when she was first elected to the House.

DN: Thank you for the visit today. You’ve served four terms in the Utah House and would have been favored to win a fifth. Why leave now?

JS: I’ve been asked that question a lot because I guess typically historically that’s not something people do, especially at the eight-year mark. But I was faced with a life decision: Stay in office or finish my education? I started work on my Ph.D. prior to running for office or even thinking about running for office. I completed my course work and all my comprehensive exams about two weeks before my first election. The only remaining part is the dissertation, and there’s a clock on that, so I need to do it now or never. Finishing my education is very important to me, so that’s what I’ve decided to do.

DN: After the Ph.D., what’s next?

JS: I anticipate that I will continue to work in some way in public policy research, strategy and implementation. I believe I will teach, but it will be in an adjunct level; I’m not interested really in a tenured-type position. But I am extraordinarily fascinated in the silence that we create between academic knowledge and experiential knowledge, and I have had the ability to transverse those two areas. I exist I think in a lot of ways in the gray space in between. We’re so dynamic and complex as human beings and we create these institutions and then they create us. If there’s a way that we can see the commonalities between them, then the way that we organize our lives and our society can be better evolved into who we want to be.

DN: Some might speculate that eight years as a Democrat in the heavily Republican Utah House counts as hazardous duty. Any burnout involved for you?

JS: I do think it (serving in the Legislature) can burn out anyone, whatever party you’re with, if you don’t create the life balance that rejuvenates you. I learned that very early on. My first session, I ended up the last hour getting this nosebleed that I couldn’t stop, just from the stress, and then I ended up with pneumonia after the session when I crashed. I learned at that time if I didn’t learn how to take care of myself I would be dead, in more ways than one.

DN: As a minority leader in the House, what was your strategy in dealing with the majority?

JS: I worked hard at being able to identify the different dimensions within the Republican caucus, because the party is very complex. The challenge is being able to reach them where they and their constituents are and show them how our public policy initiatives can help create change. I’ve been involved in some bills that are heavy, heavy lifts, and first it’s a matter of making sure the data is there, that I’m absolutely correct, that I have the citations, that I can prove what I’ve got. Then it’s a matter of driving all over the state and walking out in people’s cow fields to talk to them and tell them how what we’re proposing will impact their lives. It’s hard work and I do think that in many ways we have to work harder. If people are only going to vote along party lines without considering the issues or the individuals running, we’ve already got an uphill battle.

DN: What would you classify as the most satisfying part for you personally serving in the Legislature?

JS: Probably the most life-changing thing for me is that this body causes you to have to sit down, if you want to be effective, with people that never in a million years you would sit down with otherwise. You have to talk and relate and listen and find that common thread that you can hold onto in order to get what we need to get accomplished.

DN: Your most proud achievement?

JS: The changes in the public policy I’ve been able to be part of that are related to domestic and sexual violence, human trafficking and health legislation. Those were huge lifts. And the Women in the Economy Commission that was created this year with House Bill 90 is something I feel strongly will create meaningful change across Utah.

DN: Things you won’t soon forget?

JS: I have seen how people can really engage and take a part in their community and make a difference. I have seen high school people who took an interest in human trafficking because of a classmate they had that had been a victim of that and who organized and came up here and helped turn the tide relating to human trafficking legislation.

DN: Advice for incoming legislators?

JS: Up here we traffic in our reputation. The currency is honesty and integrity, and that has to be maintained. If somebody receives a reputation of being a liar or of being self-serving, they’re done for.

DN: If you had a magical political wand, what would you change about Utah’s Legislature?

JS: I would certainly have our Legislature be more diverse. Our community within the state is far more diverse than up here. That’s not only about political party, it’s about gender, it’s about race, ethnicity and also occupation. We need to reach out more to people and groups that aren’t typically here or represented. Balance creates better conversation, and I think we have to do something more along those lines, we just have to.

DN: How difficult will it be for you to leave?

JS: It’s going to be hard. I’ve developed a lot of close relationships up here and I plan to continue those. I love the community that I’ve served. But I have always believed that serving as an elected official is a temporary gig. This is not my seat, this is the community’s seat, so the notion that I would serve out forever has never been a thought. On December 31st, my face disappears from all the photos, that’s how I look at it, like a "Twilight Zone" episode. That’s the way it should be.

DN: Hard to believe it’s all come and gone so fast?

JS: That blows me away. It’s amazing, isn’t it? I moved out here from Louisville, Kentucky, with a young man I was dating at the time in a U-Haul with a Rottweiler and 700 bucks. I said to myself I’m going to try it for a year and it’s, what, 21 years later! My mom wasn’t happy about me moving so far away. I got to bring her out here for the last session and she brought my 14-year-old niece who led the Pledge of Allegiance. That was cool. That was very cool. I’ve had some tremendous experiences. It’s been an amazing ride.