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Richard Davis: The 2016 Simon Bamberger Political Courage Award

FILE: One of Utah's most high-profile Democrats, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, launched his bid for a second term Friday, and his Republican challenger, Dave Robinson, was quick to fire his first arsenal of attacks at the incumbent.
FILE: One of Utah's most high-profile Democrats, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, launched his bid for a second term Friday, and his Republican challenger, Dave Robinson, was quick to fire his first arsenal of attacks at the incumbent.
Deseret News

Editor's note: An earlier version of this column stated Gov. Gary Herbert opposed and then supported Donald Trump. Gov. Herbert said in early October he would not vote for Donald Trump.

Courage is a rare commodity in political life. When it appears, it should be celebrated. That is why I give the Simon Bamberger Award for Political Courage each year. This year’s recipients faced pressure to make politically expedient decisions and they refused to do so.

Simon Bamberger, Utah’s fourth governor, was an advocate of policies that were not always popular, especially with established interests. He didn’t hew a particular ideology or political party line. Bamberger did what he felt was right, even if some powerful people didn’t like it.

That explains the behavior of Mayor Ben McAdams in his approach to the West Jordan Facebook deal. Sweetheart deals that bring in prominent corporations are common for states and municipalities across the country. These firms successfully play one community against another to extract the most favorable agreement they can. The Facebook deal would have provided 130 jobs but would have cost Utah taxpayers nearly $200 million in tax breaks.

These deals typically are not sold as bad for the taxpayer. But they can be. Someone has to make up the difference in property tax, income tax and other taxes that these companies do not need to pay for many years. That someone is the average Utah family. Moreover, the money lost in tax breaks robs public education at a time when Utah’s education system already is severely underfunded.

Mayor McAdams opposed the deal and helped kill it. He said it was “just too much for too little benefit.” Unlike some other public officials, McAdams was unwilling to roll over when a big company dangled a new facility and some jobs. That is courageous.

Two other politicians who deserve the award this year showed political courage by bucking their political party as it embraced Donald Trump. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and U.S. Sen. Mike Lee were “never-Trumpers” who refused to endorse the Republican presidential nominee when so many other Republicans fell in line. They faced the potential anger of a host of Republican delegates and activists with long memories.

Cox criticized Trump’s rhetorical tone during the campaign. He called him “dangerous” and concluded that Trump “represents the worst of what our great country stands for.” Before the Utah presidential primary, Cox expressed hope that Trump did poorly because that vote outcome would be “the exact message to send — Utah being the designated driver for Republicans in the country.”

Similarly, Lee was strongly critical of Trump during the campaign. He lambasted Trump’s plan to halt Muslim immigration. He even called on Trump to drop out of the presidential race. At one point, he admitted that Trump “scared him to death.” Not surprisingly, the senator faced continual pressure from other Republicans to support Trump, but refused.

Cox and Lee were unlike other prominent Utah politicians who flip-flopped. Rep. Chris Stewart compared Trump to Benito Mussolini (a comparison that will become more apt as time goes on), but then endorsed him. Rep. Jason Chaffetz opposed and then supported Trump.

But Cox and Lee remained opposed to Trump. Lee announced in the U.S. Senate debate that he would not vote for Trump. Cox said the same earlier. He even criticized the president-elect when he demeaned the electoral process, despite the fact that he had won. Cox called Trump’s comments “dangerous” and “completely unsubstantiated.”

Lee even went so far as to announce after the election that he had voted for Evan McMullin as a protest against Trump. At that point, it was not politically advantageous for him to reveal that he had not voted for the Republican presidential nominee, particularly since he now would be working with that nominee as president. How much of a political price Lee will pay for his opposition to the new president remains to be seen, but it is significant he was willing to take the risk.

The willingness to buck political pressure and do the right thing is a rare trait, but one that should be encouraged. McAdams, Cox, and Lee demonstrated that trait this year. Hopefully this small recognition will encourage more of such behavior in the future.