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My view: Utah's political landscape can be better

FILE: Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, right, answers questions during a town hall event at the University of Utah's Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City, Monday on Oct. 10, 2016.
FILE: Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, right, answers questions during a town hall event at the University of Utah's Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City, Monday on Oct. 10, 2016.
Deseret News

I was surprised on Dec. 2 to read Greg Bell’s op-ed about Republicans in Washington and Democrats in Utah. Bell’s analysis of the Utah Democratic message is fascinating to me. He ascertains that our ideas and policies are too liberal for a Utah audience, and as a registered Republican and former Republican elected official, of course he would think Utah Democrats are too liberal. I’ll be the first to admit the election didn’t go my way. As the executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, it’s my job to help our party do everything we can to elect more Democrats in Utah.

This year, we managed to garner our first net gain in the Utah House since 2008. We didn’t elect as many Democrats as we wanted to, but we did win some races, and those wins shouldn’t be dismissed. We re-elected Mayor Ben McAdams in Salt Lake County, we ousted incumbent Republican Sophia DiCaro in West Valley, and we took a legislative seat in Taylorsville by electing our first Chinese-American woman to the state Legislature, Rep.-elect Karen Kwan. Democrats took over every partisan seat in Summit County, and we gave ultra-conservative Republican Rep. LaVar Christensen a run for his money with a narrow five-vote margin over Suzanne Harrison in Sandy. We didn’t pick up as many legislative seats as we had hoped, but we are proud to have made net gains for the first time in nearly a decade.

Utah Democrats are constantly striving for a seat at the table. We’ve tried a few different approaches, with little to no results. Under our former Chairman Jim Dabakis, the party was a constant watchdog, blowing the whistle every time the GOP stepped out of bounds with John Swallow, the DABC and protecting greater Canyonlands. With Chairman Peter Corroon, we’ve pushed a more moderate, mainstream agenda, headlining issues such as public education, clean air and Medicaid expansion.

I disagree with Bell on his conjecture that our policies and ideas are too liberal. No matter what we say, and no matter what policies we put forward, Republicans continue to rule the day here in the Beehive State. Why, you ask? Gerrymandering. Let me say that again: GERRYMANDERING. Under our current system, legislators are selecting their constituents, instead of the other way around. Gerrymandering is the main reason Utah Democrats continue to lose seats. It’s not just because our message isn’t well-received in rural Utah. Utah Democrats received 28 percent of the vote share in Utah but are only represented in the Legislature at 17 percent.

Until gerrymandering is addressed at the state and federal level, Utah’s representation will continue to be one-sided, leaving room for unethical behavior. From the Governor’s Mansion to Capitol Hill, there is no check, no balance, no dissent. Elected officials are getting away with anything they want. Whether it’s selling our public lands to the highest bidder, granting favors to legislators’ preferred organizations, taking campaign contributions from payday lenders then guarding them from prosecution, or continuing to deny health care to thousands of underprivileged Utahns who could have health care access if our Legislature would expand Medicaid, these legislators are getting away with all of it because they make the rules and we don’t have enough elected Democrats to push back.

2016 saw an election that called for change. I hope Utahns will continue that call and help work toward changing Utah’s political landscape from its current form to something that better represents all Utahns, not a select majority. You don’t have to be a Democrat to do that. You just have to be willing to speak up.

Lauren Littlefield is executive director of the Utah Democratic Party.