Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of profiles the Deseret News is publishing on the candidates running for the 2nd Congressional District.
Knee-deep in southern Utah’s gritty soil, Celeste Maloy stood with hands dyed brown, explaining the intricacies of federal red tape to a rural landowner.
This is how Maloy has spent her adult life — according to those who know her best — helping Utahns navigate government bureaucracy and attempting to change it to better meet their needs. And now, as the Utah Republican Party’s convention winner and a contender in September’s GOP primary election to replace her former boss, Rep. Chris Stewart, Maloy is looking to get her hands dirty serving 2nd Congressional District constituents from the pristine halls of Congress.
Previously an unknown face in Utah politics, other than serving for one term as vice chair of the Washington County Republican Party, Maloy’s name was elevated near the top of pundits’ lists when she was endorsed by retiring congressman Stewart just weeks before the state Republican Party’s special nominating convention. In a surprise upset, Maloy won the delegates’ nomination over former state house speaker, Greg Hughes, 52% to 48%.
Maloy says when her family and friends found out she was running for Congress, they could hardly believe it. Their assumption, Maloy said, was that “people like us can’t do this.”
But Maloy believes it’s precisely her background as a small-town southern Utah resident that will be the key to her success among 2nd Congressional District Republicans.
“They don’t view me as someone who’s lofty and above them and doesn’t understand them,” she said in an interview with the Deseret News. “I’m one of them. And I’m working hard.”
While the days following her nomination were filled with confusion over her voter registration in the state, Maloy hopes a history of working on 2nd Congressional District issues will speak for itself.
“I don’t have a voting record, but I do have a track record, a track record of serving you,” Maloy told delegates during her convention speech.
Growing up in a single-wide trailer in small-town Nevada, just on the other side of the Utah state line, the Iron County resident has come to call Utah home and feels its concerns are her own. Maloy worked as a soil conservationist for the Department of Agriculture in Beaver for over a decade and as an attorney for Washington County for several years before joining Stewart’s office as his chief legal counsel in D.C. After working with the congressman for four years, Maloy decided to dive into a whirlwind congressional campaign on his insistence.
The “why” behind Chris Stewart’s endorsement
“I encouraged her to run because I felt that she really was just so qualified and so prepared to kind of fill my shoes,” Stewart told the Deseret News in a phone call.
Stewart is friends with several of the candidates running to fill his seat, he said, but considers Maloy “the best and most qualified person for the job” because of her familiarity with natural resources, water sustainability and federal agencies — “all of the really important issues that affect a huge part of my district.”
“She’s as smart on these issues as anyone in Washington, D.C.,” Stewart said. “I would not have endorsed her if I didn’t actually believe that.”
Stewart readily admits his endorsement may have helped Maloy gain traction with delegates, but said it was Maloy’s humble confidence and experience working on his district’s issues that ultimately persuaded party members.
But Maloy’s combination of down-home demeanor and policy know-how will have to resonate with a whole new crowd as she faces off against her much more well-known and well-heeled primary challengers — former state legislature and senate candidate Becky Edwards and former Republican National committeeman and two-time state GOP chair Bruce Hough — who qualified via signature gathering for the Sept. 5 primary contest where they hope to gain their party’s nomination and become Utah’s next member of Congress.
Maloy’s wager is that 2nd District residents will be able to see themselves in her journey from country girl to congressional candidate.
“I think that they can trust me because I’m a lot like the people in the 2nd District,” Maloy said. “I’ve spent my life trying to solve problems that people in the 2nd District say they need help with. And that is what I want to keep doing.”
From Hiko to House staffer
Straddling state Route 318 in Lincoln County, Nevada, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas, is the desert community of Hiko — population: 100 — where Maloy and her five siblings were raised in a mobile home trailer.
According to Maloy’s oldest brother, Vern, summer days were spent riding bikes to neighboring Ash and Crystal Springs and “wandering through the desert” — all of which, Vern and siblings quickly learned, belonged to the government.
“We were completely surrounded by public lands,” Vern said in a phone call with the Deseret News.
In fact, according to Maloy, 98% of her home county is owned and managed by the federal government, which made it impossible for the community to do things like build an elementary school without years of negotiations with the Bureau of Land Management.
“The federal government was involved in everything and there was nothing anyone could do about it. That was just sort of a recurring theme throughout my childhood,” Maloy said.
This theme continued when she went to work as a soil conservationist — which was Maloy’s first job after graduating with a degree in agriculture from Southern Utah University in Cedar City, where she, and all her siblings except Vern, were born.
Kristi Hatch was there as a 6-month-old on her mom’s hip when Maloy’s mother went into labor. Hatch and Maloy soon became lifelong friends, participating in Future Farmers of America together, where they tied in the land judging contest that won them both full-tuition scholarships; living as roommates at SUU; and landing the same job after graduation with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The job consisted of helping farmers and ranchers identify resource issues, such as erosion or water shortages, and providing a conservation plan with potential solutions, Hatch said.
“You would dig a hole and analyze their soil,” Hatch explained. “You’re out in the fields.”
Days spent in the fields, forming relationships with rural landowners in Beaver County was Maloy’s profession for over ten years. But the longer she did it, the more she realized there was more she wished she could do.
“The people I was trying to help were, again, in a situation where their lives are controlled by policies that are set by the federal government,” Maloy said. “I just felt like I had to do something to get in a position to help change some of these policies. … So, I started studying for the LSAT.”
After graduating from Brigham Young University’s law school, Maloy was hired by the Washington County Attorney’s Office, where her first opportunity to influence policy came quickly.
Maloy was tasked with creating the county’s resource management plan in response to the BLM’s decennial proposal, which was thunked on her desk just days after starting in the new position. It wasn’t long before she had filled the inches-thick stack of papers with sticky notes marking areas of concern for Washington County residents.
None of these problems could be resolved unless she did something, Maloy realized. She got to work meeting with community leaders, negotiating with local BLM agents and eventually participating in a congressional field hearing, which involved sitting down with Utah’s federal delegation, including the district’s representative, Chris Stewart.
“That was a revelatory experience for me,” Maloy said. “It’s how I finally started to see that someone can make a difference in these government policies.”
Following the field hearing, Maloy told her mom she thought her career had likely “peaked.” A few years later, Maloy would receive a call from Stewart, who was looking for someone with her expertise.
Where Maloy stands on the issues
Over the last four years, Maloy assisted Stewart on his Fairness for All Act, a bill attempting to balance LGBTQ rights and religious freedom, and worked closely with him on legislation to improve the federal government’s stewardship of the West’s wild horse population and funding for crucial infrastructure projects in rural Utah communities.
One of the reasons Stewart gave for endorsing Maloy is her unique ability upon entering office to pick up where he left off. He specifically mentioned Maloy’s understanding of the district’s water situation, as well as her familiarity with U.S.-China relations and teen mental health because of her work with him on those issues.
When asked about her priorities, Maloy said most of the problems she sees in the district have to do with federal overreach, particularly when it comes to how public lands are used and managed.
“We need somebody who knows how to work with federal agencies and also someone who knows how to curtail federal agencies when they’re out of control,” Maloy said.
Maloy says one of her goals if elected is to follow in the footsteps of former Utah 1st Congressional District Reps. Rob Bishop and Jim Hansen, who chaired the House Committee on Natural Resources, so she can lead out on the policies that have the greatest effect on her constituents.
“I’m not going to be one of the flashiest members of Congress,” Maloy said. “But we’ve got to have people that dig in on policy and know it inside and out. And I want to be that kind of member of Congress.”
Maloy’s website says she will “fight to secure our border, protect our religious freedoms, defend the 2nd amendment, stop out of control spending, rein in inflation, and fight the abortion agenda.”
When asked what specifically she will do to shrink the nation’s immense and growing debt, she said compromises will be necessary to get to the point where the country can balance its budget, and she committed to supporting steps in the right direction, like May’s debt ceiling deal, which Stewart and the rest of Utah’s delegation supported.
She also said the federal government can save money by limiting federal agencies to the work they were approved to do by Congress.
On the question of financial assistance to Ukraine, which now sits at around $75 billion, Maloy said she is glad there was a united show of support from the U.S. and its allies when Ukraine was invaded by Russia but hopes we have learned from recent conflicts that dragged on over decades.
“I think now it’s time to have an exit strategy, to define success so we know how far we’re willing to go, and then we’ve got to demand from Ukraine an accounting for the dollars that we’ve spent and the equipment we’ve sent. If we don’t have that we shouldn’t be offering them any more aid,” she said.
Looking forward — possible trouble ahead?
Maloy’s primary campaign is moving ahead after something of a rocky start.
Following the GOP convention, it was publicized that Maloy was on a list to be removed from state voter rolls at the time she filed to run for office. Maloy had not voted in two consecutive elections after moving to Virginia to work for Stewart because she worried it would be a source of controversy if her absentee ballot was accidentally flagged.
Maloy’s “removable” voter status caused some to speculate on whether she should be disqualified from the race. The question appeared to be resolved when Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson determined that Maloy had “satisfied all lawful requirements and constitutional qualifications” in filing for office and Utah GOP chair Rob Axson submitted Maloy’s name to the lieutenant governor’s office.
However, one of Maloy’s challengers, Hough, has questioned whether Maloy is a real Republican for not voting in recent elections. And a former candidate, Richard Quin Denning, who lost at the GOP convention, filed a lawsuit last week seeking to remove Maloy from the primary ballot based on the allegation that the lieutenant governor’s office did not act in compliance with Utah law when it determined that Maloy had correctly filed to run.
Jimi Kestin, who was chair of the Washington County GOP while Maloy was vice chair, said claims about Maloy being out of touch with, or deceptive toward, 2nd Congressional District Republicans are “absolute nonsense.”
“She’s the most conservative person in this race by a long shot,” Kestin said. “She is a conservative Republican who passionately believes in the Utah Republican Party platform and wants to see the principles and values of Utah Republicans represented by our elected officials. And I can’t think of a better motivation than that.”
Maloy, for her part, says she’s done talking about the issue and ready for her work to speak for itself. She finds her efforts are most fruitful when she is able to talk one-on-one with Republicans in her district. Maloy’s campaign recently invited Edwards and Hough to join her for 13 in-person debates in each of the 13 counties represented in the 2nd Congressional District.
“I am never going to be able to raise enough money to outspend Becky Edwards and Bruce Hough, but I know I can outwork them,” Maloy said. “So I’m trying to get in front of as many people as I can, and tell my story and talk about my priorities, because I’m finding that they really resonate with the voters in this district.”