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A look back with retiring Sen. Steve Urquhart on the LDS Church, LGBT rights and Donald Trump

Q&A with Steve Urquhart

SHARE A look back with retiring Sen. Steve Urquhart on the LDS Church, LGBT rights and Donald Trump

SALT LAKE CITY — When he walks into the voting booth or mails in his ballot this November, Steve Urquhart will participate in the time-honored American tradition of voting himself out of a job while also designating which candidate he thinks ought to replace him.

The two-term senator from St. George, and before that the four-term representative, has elected to call it good after 16 years in the Utah Legislature, capping one of the most entertaining and inimitable runs the statehouse has ever seen.

The swath Urquhart (rhymes with “work-hard”) cut wasn’t just the path less traveled, it was often the path never traveled. Whatever stereotype might exist for a Republican politician from conservative southern Utah flew out the window when he flew in.

He fit no mold. He was for vouchers, against the death penalty; for sex education, against outlawing the teaching of evolution; for gay rights, against the high price of lawyers (and he is one); for increased funding of higher education, against many of the ways colleges and universities spend their funding.

He was constantly running head first into conservative pillars like the Sutherland Institute, the Eagle Forum and, on occasion, the LDS Church — while at the same time being as small-government, pro-business and low-taxes as any Reaganite.

He came by his non-convention honestly. Raised, or not raised, on the poor side of Houston by distracted parents, Urquhart’s journey to the Utah Legislature was hardly typical. The youngest of four brothers, he was just 7 when one of his brothers, who was 19 at the time, killed himself. The family later found a semblance of stability when Steve was 10 and his mother joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At 19, Urquhart served a Mormon mission to Brazil. When he returned he got a bachelor’s degree in biology at Williams College in Massachusetts.

After that he attended law school at BYU, where he met his wife, Sara, who grew up in St. George. They spent the first two years after law school in Newport Beach, California, and Seattle, where Steve worked for the international law firm Morrison Foerster. Then the Urquharts set down roots in St. George to raise their children, one son and three daughters.

Political office was never an aspiration, but while practicing law in southern Utah, Urquhart found himself working with a number of elected officials on public lands matters, wilderness issues, roads and infrastructure. Intrigued by politicians and the political process, when the seat for his legislative district opened in 2000, he tossed his hat in the ring.

He won four two-year terms in the House, 2001-2008, followed by two four-year terms in the Senate, 2009-2016.

When his term expires at the end of this year, Urquhart, who just turned 50 and was recently hired by the University of Utah as a global ambassador, will retire from politics undefeated.

The Deseret News caught up with Steve Urquhart to talk about where he’s been, what he’s done, where he’s going and what lessons he’s learned.

DN: Thank you for your time today. First things first, just how much did your upbringing have to do with the politician you became?

SU: I’m all about equality. Look at the things that drive me, it’s some form of equality, and I do think that comes from how I grew up — seeing so much on the other side of the tracks and so little on my side.

As a kid, my parents were otherwise occupied, and I could do whatever I wanted. It wasn’t so much a long leash as no leash at all. My brother killing himself was formative. My mom realized we needed something more, so she and the brother just a year and a half older than I am, we joined the Mormon Church. And that was a good, good thing. I love the Mormon Church because of the structure it gave us. My dad didn’t join. He always thought it was weird, but he was supportive. I went on a mission to Brazil, and he paid for that.

DN: It sounds like education was something that mattered to your parents.

SU: My dad didn’t get to go to college. He did the Navy thing and then had to work. He told his boys we could go to school wherever we wanted and he’d take care of it. That was his dream, but he couldn’t do it. So, he wanted to make sure we could. He worked his way into owning a carpet store, and he paid for our college by padding every bill to the contractors by 3 percent.

DN: The political side of your life, how did that come about?

SU: I did a lot of legal work for governments. I worked with elected officials and really liked the breed. Politicians are just different cats, and I knew it would be a good fit for me. In 2000, I was helping Jay Ence run for an open House seat when Bill Hickman was moving over to the Senate, but at the last minute Jay decided — his wife decided — that he wasn’t running. There were four other folks in the race, and I figured I could do it as well as they could, so I ran. It went really well, and I entered the Legislature in 2001. Marty Stephens was speaker, and Marty took a shine to me right away and gave me some good opportunities. After four years in the House I was (majority) whip. The next year I was rules chair. And then I moved over to the Senate at the start of the 2009 session.

DN: Officially you’re a Republican, but you don’t seem to fit any mold.

SU: I’m just Steve, right? I’ve always been comfortable being me. I’ve never wanted to follow a herd. I try to do my homework and figure out what’s right and wrong, but I don’t care if I stand alone on an issue. I don’t feel pressured if the whole room is against me. Sometimes I like those odds. I think part of it maybe comes from being raised by wolves.

DN: One thing you’re sure to be remembered for is the fight for private-school vouchers, which ultimately lost. What do you remember about that battle?

SU: (Laughs) I remember we got that passed through the Legislature and then we were overturned by voter referendum. So I have the distinction of being the only legislator in the history of this state to have a piece of legislation reversed by citizen referendum.

DN: Vouchers. Anti-discrimination laws to protect the LGBT community. Repealing the death penalty. Better access to justice for poor people. Tougher hate-crimes legislation. You haven’t shied away from controversial issues, have you?

SU: All of these things have a commonality. They all involve the poor or the disadvantaged — people who need something that they’re not getting. If I can help them out, that’s the kind of thing I like to do.

DN: You’ve won some and lost some, but through it all you seem to have retained an intense respect for the legislative process.

SU: I will tease the Legislature, but I’ll never vilify it, because I believe in it. Yeah, we fight, we’re stupid at times, but it’s just really a good system, and by and large we come to good conclusions. Utah is a well-run state. If I had a magic wand, I’d change several things. But I don’t, and that’s probably a good thing. On most issues, I believe eventually we’ll get where we need to be. So many times I’ve had pieces of legislation where I know exactly what we should do, but then the process smacks me around and the end result is just so much better than what I had figured out. I believe there’s magic in the process.

DN: Your passionate support for the LGBT community, where does that come from?

SU: Going into her senior year of high school, my daughter Zella (who is not gay) said she was going to be president of the gay-straight alliance. I said: “Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s going to give me issues (as a legislator). Do you really want to do this?" We talked about it, and she really did believe that she needed to do it. Of course, because I love her far more than politics, I supported her in it. And I learned a lot by watching her. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but to me at that point I was “othering” LGBT individuals in my mind. If I knew someone was gay, they were gay, and, then, maybe they were something more, like kind, smart, a lawyer, a rock collector. But, primarily, they were gay. That’s just a horrible way to see people. That’s what bias and prejudice are, right? We see the skin color, we see the religion, before we see the person. Just getting to know Zella’s friends, see her love for them, and their love and appreciation for her, that changed me.

DN: So you joined the cause?

SU: Actually, the cause came to me. Equality Utah asked me to support nondiscrimination stuff in 2009, and I said I couldn’t. Then, in 2013, after Zella’s experience, I was ready. On the last day in 2013 that a bill could be filed, Equality Utah said, “We thought we had a Republican sponsor but we don’t, can you do this?” I said yes, and that started the ride.

DN: Getting the nondiscrimination legislation passed saw you do something Republican legislators aren’t known for doing: calling out the LDS Church.

SU: I love to grapple. It’s who I am. It’s how I grew up. I love to get along, but on tough issues I love to fight, I’d almost say no matter who the opponent is. But I hate being adverse to the Mormon Church. I just hate that. I respect the institution so much. I didn’t want to be antagonistic. I didn’t intend for there to be disrespect. But I had to ask questions, I had to push, and that can be seen as disrespect. Again, I respect the political process and hopefully I was respectful. In 2014, when the Senate refused to even hear my non-discrimination legislation, I protested — with the hundreds of “Hear SB100” notes posted on the Senate doors — but I did coordinate with Senate leadership. I said, look, shutting the doors on an issue that’s one of the biggest issues of our time is disrespectful to our state constitution, to our people. That’s why we exist, that’s the genius of Madison. We don’t explode out on the streets, we implode toward the legislative chambers. That’s where we duke it out, that’s where we air out the things that threaten to divide us.

DN: How did the LDS Church come into the conversation?

SU: After 2014, the media would call me (about the bill’s lack of progress), and I would say you’re talking to the wrong person. The Mormon Church controls this issue. If they want it to pass, it will pass. Maybe that blunt honesty helped move the church to a better place.

DN: And that’s what happened?

SU: I don’t know the behind-the-scenes story at all, but on the second day of the 2015 session, the church said it was for it. After that, folks who would have died before voting for it in previous years were elbowing out others to be a part of the presser when we signed it.

DN: Do you see a similar evolution with your bill advocating LGBT-specific hate-crime laws that failed to pass this past session?

SU: I believe that’s the direction we’re headed. Look, guard the gates to the temple, I’ll help you guard them, but the societal stuff, and that’s what this is, if you want to lay down on those tracks, the train’s going to run you over. With older people it’s not always so obvious, but with young people, they can’t believe anyone’s on the other side. That’s why younger people don’t understand why I’m being honored left and right. As they should, they take LGBT equality as a given and simply think I’m maybe not an idiot on this issue.

DN: You also believe it’s past time to do away with the death penalty. Please explain.

SU: The death penalty makes no sense. It’s stupid. It’s wasteful of resources. Think about it — who do we put to death? Poor people. It’s never someone who can afford Johnny Cochran. The bigger picture is access to justice. In 2015 I made another run at trying to improve access to justice. I mean that just burns in my soul. Liberty and justice for all should mean something, and it doesn’t. Go to the collection calendar at court sometime, if you want to have your heart broken. You have all these corporations with great attorneys going up against folks in working clothes, maybe with language difficulties, always by themselves. They bounced a check for 40 bucks, now they owe 500 bucks, and nobody’s advising them because we’ve put help outside their reach. My end goal is to make it so non-lawyers can give legal advice. You don’t need a legal degree to help people out of certain things. I couldn’t get the bill out of committee in 2015. I just got shredded. I walked around the Capitol grounds bawling, thinking I’m inept, realizing I’m probably not up here much longer, and I haven’t really made much of a difference at all on this issue. …

Then a month later, Deno Himonas was appointed to the Utah Supreme Court. Deno grew up in Carbon County, surrounded by working-class people. So, he gets poverty issues. Over the years, Deno and I had talked and talked about these access to justice issues. In his new position he convened a task force to look at improving access to justice. In the first meeting, he said it’s a mathematical impossibility for lawyers to meet the need that is out there; so we need to look to see how non-lawyers can provide services. The Supreme Court unanimously adopted our suggestions for non-lawyer representation. And now we’re working on implementing the recommendations and licensing non-lawyer legal advisers. I spent 16 years basically just getting my butt kicked in the Legislature, but it mattered, because one person, Deno Himonas, heard me. And when Deno put on that black robe, people tended to listen. So yes, I lost some bills, but the issues go forward.

DN: Your new position as global ambassador at the University of Utah, what does that entail?

SU: I’ll be involved in the university’s global reach. The U. is doing wonderful things, in South Korea, China, Ghana and other countries. My job is to see where we might be able to build on the wonderful things they’re doing; make them bigger, better.

DN: What’s your take on Donald Trump, another nonconformist. Have you ever been compared to him?

SU: I hope not. I want to be really respectful to people. How well can you work with people who believe that you hate them? The things I say, I try to build up people. People claim Trump says what needs to be said. I don’t think that’s the case. I think he’s rude, he’s offensive, and he belittles people. He says what shouldn’t be said.

DN: What do you make of his popularity?

SU: It’s interesting. The tea party stuff, you saw it out there and you felt the groundswell. You kinda knew what the earthquake was that caused the tsunami — it was the Affordable Care Act and this was a reaction to it. This current sentiment, I don’t know what the epicenter is; I don’t know when it happened. But the huge sentiment out there is “none of the above.” Donald Trump is none of the above. That was a pretty dang good Republican field he just shredded. Because he’s none of the above. Bernie Sanders? Come on. I mean I think he’s a nice guy, but any other year he wouldn’t have had a chance. But he was the closest thing to none of the above in that field, and he gave Hillary all she could take. Looking forward to November, if Trump doesn’t just completely implode, which he probably will because I don’t think he can control what he says, but if he could stop talking between now and November, I think he’d win, because that is the flavor of the day. It’s none of the above. It’s weird. We’re the best nation in the world right now. There’s not even a second place. Globally, things are running so well for us, but people right now, they just want to rip it up and do something new.

Email: benson@deseretnews.com