MILLCREEK — Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams expresses disappointment repeatedly when asked about the negative tone of the 4th Congressional District race between him and the incumbent, Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah.
"People warned me they would be very negative, so I guess I'm probably not surprised but disappointed," the Democratic mayor said, using the same word to describe what he called "an unwillingness from that campaign to engage on issues."
McAdams says he wants to tackle problems like health care and the deficit, but he noted the negativity infused in political campaigns made him think twice about getting in the race.
Voters are "tired of politicians that can only focus on the next election and not on solving problems," he said. "So while it did give me pause, it also gave me, I think, a fortitude to say this is not what we need in Washington."
His wife, Julie, an attorney for the University of Utah, takes credit for talking her husband into running.
"I was the one that said, 'I want you to do this.' It's just where our country is, people who are partisan, who don't appear to listen in a way that they're open-minded or trying to solve a problem," she said.
Still, Julie McAdams said she isn't a fan of campaigns.
"I don't like the attacks. I don't like the negativity, the drama, the length, the cost. I mean, it all seems like we go about getting to public service the wrong way to me," she said. "This is all about how can we turn something into a negative."
Ben McAdams said he believes voters would rather hear about his stands on issues, particularly the rising cost of health care. He has called for Congress to make fixes to the Affordable Care Act rather than repeal President Barack Obama's signature law.
He has also spoken out against the $1.5 trillion tax cut passed last year by the Republican-led Congress at the behest of President Donald Trump, labeling it reckless and favoring the wealthy.
"That tax bill is borrowed from future generations," McAdams said, a debt of $6,000 for every man, woman and child in Utah that limits future choices. "I do support tax relief and modernizing the tax code. But that was fiscally irresponsible."
A former state senator, McAdams, 43, was first elected mayor of the state's most populous county in 2012. His campaign headquarters on 3300 South includes a bulletin board where volunteers are encouraged to post reasons to vote for him.
"He tells a great green Jell-O joke," one of the notes reads. McAdams said he can't remember the joke, but launches into a story about an unsuccessful attempt the night before to make a frosted Jell-O map of Utah with his twins for a school project.
The McAdams' four children, twins Kate and James, 13; Robert, 10; and Issac, 7, have always been a part of their father's political life, appearing in TV commercials in his current race.
"I think we're a very close family. We are all in for each other," the mayor said. Bringing the children along to campaign events like parades is "part of what we do to be able to spend time together."
McAdams said he and his wife, who has worked three-quarters time since he became mayor, share school drop-off duties most mornings and make sure the children get to baseball and soccer practice as well as other activities.
At a recent campaign appearance in the Millcreek home of BYU Broadcasting managing director Michael Dunn, McAdams jokingly thanked BYUtv's "Studio C" comedy show for baby-sitting before delivering a 15-minute speech.
The several dozen people gathered for what was billed as a "friends-raising" listened raptly to his story of spending several days and nights among the homeless in Salt Lake City's Rio Grande neighborhood earlier this year.
McAdams also talked about working closely with Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, a Republican from Draper, and being urged to run by an unnamed GOP official when he was wavering back and forth about getting in the race.
The official, McAdams said, told him he wouldn't support a Democrat publicly, but that as a Republican, he is "a patriot and I'm not willing to concede this country is lost and Washington is lost. You should run."
Another Republican backing McAdams, Draper Mayor Troy Walker, said they've worked well together on homelessness and other issues, including the transportation needs for the south end of the valley.
"He's a guy who's willing to try to solve a problem without it having to be partisan. I like that. I've just come to really appreciate that," Walker said, calling McAdams "good at the business of politics. He understands how it works."
He remains among McAdams' most vocal supporters despite taking a lot of heat for claiming in a TV commercial that McAdams lowered the county's property tax rate each year.
"I stand by it," Walker said, because he believes McAdams should get credit for good fiscal management. Critics, however, say the tax rate automatically fluctuates to keep revenues stable annually under the state's truth-in-taxation laws.
"One thing about politics is you've got to take credit where you can," Walker said. "Most of the criticism I get, it's not people saying they don't like Ben or don't think he's a good person. … It's partisan."
The Draper mayor said he moved more to the middle ideologically as a local official because "compromise is where things get done in government." It's a lesson Walker said Washington needs to learn.
"There's a lot of fear Ben will go back there and be a Nancy Pelosi," Walker said, a reference to the House minority leader, a Democrat from California. "He's smart. He knows he's going to have to put Utah first."
Love was the first to go after her opponent in a TV commercial, labeling Ben McAdams a "tax and spend Democrat" not long after CNN aired a critical story about her fundraising, picked up by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
McAdams soon jumped into the fray with a commercial taking on Love as having "gone Washington" and picturing her next to President Donald Trump. Love countered with a new spot touting McAdams' ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
There's been a slew of spots from both sides, and now the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based super PAC aimed at maintaining a GOP majority, is running what is expected to be $1 million in negative ads about McAdams.
Love said her campaign's commercial are not negative by Washington standards.
"There were no personal attacks. As a mater of fact, we tried to keep is as friendly and lighthearted as possible," she said. "He's not willing to talk about that information so we have to."
McAdams said he's running "a very positive campaign that is focused on the issues," including questions raised by the Federal Election Commission about $1 million in campaign contributions collected by Love for a primary election that didn't happen.
"She's spending it to attack me," McAdams said. "We felt it was necessary and appropriate to respond to that, to set the record straight on my accomplishments and my track record."
Evan Riddle, a close friend of McAdams dating back to their days as part of a tight-knit group of "bros" at Viewmont High School in Bountiful, said he's looking forward to voting for him after living out of state for several years.
"He just cares a lot. Even if I didn't necessarily agree with everything, I know he would look at every issue objectively and do his best," Riddle said. "I feel like that's all you can ask for in a person."
A scientist with a bio-technology company, Riddle said even in high school, McAdams "never had a problem standing for something.... He wasn't the loudest person, but kind of his style was that nobody was going to bulldoze him."
Where he stands
Cites record of working on both sides of the aisle in state Senate and as Salt Lake County mayor and pledges to continue to do so in Congress "to overcome Washington's broken politics."
Calls for comprehensive immigration reform that includes secured borders, more legal immigration and resolving the uncertainty still faced by many undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
Supports developing increased renewable energy sources and new technologies and cites his partnering with the private sector and the state on solar installations on county-managed facilities and other projects aimed at improving the environment.