Editor’s note: To read the latest commentary from Chris Stewart, Republican candidate for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, click here.

Along the mountainous eastern edge of Afghanistan, where I served with the U.S. State Department for almost 16 months, tribal elders wanted to say thank you. Not only to me, but also to the country I represented — and in gratitude for the generosity of the American people.

Near a streambed, they had molded a square concrete slab in the shape of a handshake. It was the symbol of the U.S. Agency for International Development, an expression of partnership between the U.S. and peoples around the world. In the middle of a dangerous combat zone, these war-weary Afghans were conveying an important message: “We can find common ground — and have.”

After leaving the State Department and writing a book, while still teaching college students in Utah and online at Marine Corps University, I decided last December to run for Congress. Two themes stood out from the very beginning of my campaign: being better neighbors and putting country over party. The pandemic has shown how reliant we remain on the actions and conscientious behavior of each other. No wall or gate can keep out COVID-19 or the degree of civil unrest possible in our nation if leaders continue to divide us — on top of our own choices to point fingers, yell and lay blame.

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Looking into the mirror can be hard. This election year, it is essential. I believe 2021 can be a better year, but only if we begin to put behind us years of division and distrust.

Taking the USAID logo as inspiration, our campaign has prioritized what it means to reach out. The logo on our letterhead and yard signs goes beyond a handshake. The image shows a blue hand and a red hand stretched out across two forearms. Since becoming the Democratic nominee in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, I have worked to put this commitment into practice. In my 17-year-old Tacoma, I have traveled almost 7,000 miles since May. Just last week I traversed red rock towns in Wayne and Garfield counties and in booming but arid Washington County, after earlier holding five town halls in a row in parks across urban Utah.

In talking with Utah voters, I have discussed many areas of common ground even in a year as polarized as this one. Utah families worry about health care costs, many on the Affordable Care Act now at risk. Grandparents and grandchildren, forced apart by COVID-19, seek days when family reunions can be held in person, not via Zoom. In Salt Lake’s west side, voters have told me about the need for a living wage. Teachers describe tough decisions — retire early or continue to teach at a time of record-high virus transmission rates. 

I have reached out to representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as answered a question about church-state relations from an atheist in Bountiful. I have listened to many Republicans, who often start conversations with direct questions about abortion or guns.

The most rewarding parts of running for Congress are those unexpected human moments that add up, such as this note I recently received:

“We adopted 2 kids from the state of UT in 1996 … They’re now 32 and 27. They work their (tails) off in restaurants and at ski resorts, neither of which pays well or includes insurance coverage. When they need medical attention, they go to the ER because it’s the only place they know they can get help, and yes, sometimes they are in life-threatening situations with asthma or pancreatitis. Can’t afford to pay the medical bills so their credit is trashed. Housing is tight in SLC so they can’t sign their own lease because of medical bills. They pay cash for everything and survive. … They could be so much more. ... They’re the lucky ones. They were adopted out of foster care. … You need to address these systemic issues that fail children in the system(.)”

This concerned Utah mom deserves the last word this week before Election Day, when so much is at stake in our state and country and for our families. 

We must unite, not further divide.  

Kael Weston is the Democratic candidate for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.