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Opinion: Meet the women running the all-female leadership teams in Utah’s government

For the first time in state history, Utah has all-female leadership teams and a Latina legislator leading a caucus in both bodies of Legislature

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Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on May 3, 2022.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks during a rally for abortion rights at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on May 3, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Utah had perhaps a quadruple helping of history-making this election cycle when the House Minority caucus elected an all female-leadership team last Wednesday, joining the all-female leadership team in the Utah Senate. Not only is this the first time either body has had an all-female leadership team, it’s the first time both bodies have had a Latina legislator leading a caucus. 

Rep. Angela Romero is the first person of color and the second woman to serve as the Utah House minority leader, after former Rep. Jen Seelig. She was first elected to the Legislature 10 years ago and has been a strong voice for victims of sexual violence. She was the legislator behind the bill requiring the testing of all rape kits in Utah. We are now only 1 of 8 states that has eliminated its backlog. 

Romero commented: “I am really excited about the strength and expertise that our new leadership team brings to the legislature. We have a wide array of lived experiences and skills to draw on. Rep. Dailey-Provost has been a champion for health care equity and understands the inner workings of the state budget. Representative Hollins is the first Black woman to serve in the legislature and passed legislation to fully abolish slavery from the Utah constitution. Representative Rosemary Lesser led the cause to eliminate the food sales tax during her first term and was a member of the first class of women to be admitted to the University of Notre Dame. We represent the values and priorities of the majority of Utahns. We want to ensure Utahns have access to affordable housing and healthcare, a quality education, clean air, and good paying jobs. We represent the changing demographics of our state. We also bring hope for future generations of young women interested in serving their community in a leadership role.” 

Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost was elected to serve as the minority whip. Dailey-Provost was elected in 2018 and has been serving as the assistant minority whip. Commenting on her leadership service, she said: “I’m eternally grateful for the House members that I have served with in leadership over the last two years. The mentorship that I have received during my first term in leadership has given me the confidence to embark on the next as I hit the ground running.” When asked about serving with the new leadership team, she said: “It is a privilege and honor to serve in the Utah House on behalf of my community, and the opportunity to do so on our new leadership team is especially poignant this term.” 

“Each member of our House Democratic caucus brings a powerful set of skills and talents, and that is certainly true for our passionate, hardworking leadership team,” she said. She added that she is “excited for Rep. Romero to lead us with her vision to improve the lives of all Utahns and their families, and to collaborate with Reps. Hollins and Lesser as we continually find ways to support and augment the strengths and experiences that are central to the strength of our dynamic new team.”

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Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, speaks in support of HCR16, which recognizes student athletes’ rights to religious freedom and modesty, in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Feb. 24, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Rep. Sandra Hollins was elected to serve as the assistant minority whip. A social worker by profession, Hollins was the first Black woman elected to the Utah Legislature when she won her election in 2014. In 2022, she passed “Izzy’s bill,” which addressed school bullying, as well as the bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday. She has also worked on criminal justice reform, including a bill banning knee-on-neck chokeholds and another bill that will help job applicants with prior criminal histories gain employment opportunities. 

The House leadership team is rounded out with Rep. Rosemary Lesser, an OB-GYN and former Air Force officer, who will serve as the caucus manager. Lesser has been in the Utah Legislature since winning a special election in January 2021, to replace Rep. Lou Shurtliff who died Dec. 30, 2020. When asked to comment on the unique nature of the new leadership team, she told me, “It is an honor to be elected by my colleagues to be a member of the leadership team for the Democratic caucus. Each of us stands on the shoulders of women who have demonstrated their talent as leaders. I look forward to a day when an all women leadership team is no longer regarded as unique.”

On the Senate side, Sen. Luz Escamilla was elected as the Senate minority leader. Escamilla was first elected in 2008 and was both the first Latina elected to the Utah Senate and the first immigrant elected to the Utah Legislature. She told KSL, “House and Senate Democrats, they elected us not only because we’re Latinas, but also because we are effective legislators and that’s a very important role. Because of our backgrounds, we can have a very unique perspective as we continue to discuss policy and make decisions on the budget that have a long-term impact not only for our community but for the rest of the state.”

She added: “It’s hopefully empowering and sends a message in Utah that this is possible, right? It’s certainly an issue of representation. When you’re representing families and communities in conversations of good public policy, I think that’s important. And the more we have that diversity of cultural identities and the different experiences, the richer and the better our decisions and our policy.”

Sen. Karen Mayne is the new minority whip. She has been in the Utah Senate since January 2008 and has been serving in leadership since 2014. When asked for a comment on the new leadership team, Mayne told me: “I was humbled to be elected again to the Senate minority leadership team and for the ability to continue serving Salt Lake’s west side in the legislature. It was a great honor to serve the past four years as minority leader and I am confident Sen. Escamilla possesses the intellect, work ethic and political savvy to succeed in this role. It is also a privilege to serve in the first all-female leadership team. Each of these women bring unique experiences and skills that will help our caucus thrive as we seek to enact policy that benefits all.”

Sen.-elect Jennifer Plumb will serve as the assistant whip. Plumb is a pediatric ER physician who is also known for her work fighting the opioid crisis, including the use and accessibility of Naloxone. She commented on her new leadership role by saying: “It was a remarkable privilege to be elected to represent the people of District 9 in the Utah Senate, and I am excited for the opportunity to also serve on the minority leadership team as assistant minority whip, further elevating important perspectives and issues. I have a deep respect and admiration for the remarkable women in our leadership team and know we have the capability to accomplish great things.”

“During the coming session, I am looking forward to getting involved in the appropriations and budget process as part of the Executive Appropriations Committee, in addition to collaborating with majority leadership. The minority caucus plays an integral role in ensuring all voices are heard as we work to improve the lives of all Utahns, and I am eager to play a part in this process.”

“Being a part of this historic all women leadership team is a tremendous honor,” she said. “I look forward to learning from and working with them all to serve all Utahns.”

Sen.-elect Stephanie Pitcher will be the new caucus manager. She is currently finishing her second term as a member of the Utah House and will be sworn in as a senator as the 2023 session begins. An attorney, she calls herself a “tireless advocate for social justice and inclusive policies that lift the most vulnerable in our community.” She has passed bills that ban shackling of pregnant inmates during labor and delivery, allow candidates to use campaign funds for child care expenses and create a statewide program that keeps victims’ addresses confidential. Pitcher is also an international candidate master in chess and an eight-time Utah Women’s State Chess Champion.

While none of these eight women ran for leadership to “make history,” it’s clear that their varied life experiences will bring more perspectives to the policymaking arena. 

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy and has more than two decades of experience with Utah politics.