As part of a yearly tradition, Utah Reps. Chris Stewart and John Curtis made rounds at Utah’s Capitol Hill on Thursday, visiting behind closed doors with Republican lawmakers and only speaking publicly to Democrats.

The two GOP congressmen’s meetings with Utah House and Senate Democrats were warm and congenial, with no verbal confrontations. They discussed a wide range of topics, from a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine to climate change to voting and election laws.

It’s not known what Stewart or Curtis talked about with the House and Senate Republican caucuses because the meetings were not open to the public or reporters.

The congressmen’s visits came three days after Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, met with Utah’s Republican lawmakers but not Democrats, brushing aside the traditional meetings with the minority caucuses. Some Utah Democrats took to Twitter to criticize Owens for skipping the meeting.

Owens, on Twitter, said he would have visited with Utah House Democrats like he did last year — when he apologized to “liberals” because he then realized the difference between them, Marxists and socialists — but blamed Democrats for not inviting him “due to your oversight.”

Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, the House minority caucus manager, replied, “That’s strange because you were on our agenda for at least a week” but were taken off the agenda “at the request of your office.”

There was far less drama over Curtis’ and Stewart’s visits with House and Senate Democrats. Rep. Blake Moore and Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, all Republicans, are scheduled to meet with lawmakers next month.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks during a House Minority Caucus meeting during the 2022 session of the Utah Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Rep. Chris Stewart’s conversation with Utah Democrats

Stewart empathized with Utah’s Democrats about being part of the minority party — like he is now in Washington, D.C.

“Being the minority in federal Congress is indescribable,” Stewart said to the House minority caucus. “I mean, it’s really, really difficult.”

Stewart told Democrats it’s been “fun to watch you all and some of your interactions” with their Republican colleagues in the Legislature “and the way you treat each other.”

“I share your frustration in the sense that I know being in a minority isn’t as satisfying as being the majority. But you do seem to find a way ... to work together on many things,” Stewart said.

Stewart said the Salt Lake Valley’s air quality is on his priority list, even if there’s an “unfortunate perception that if you’re a Republican you don’t care about the environment.”

“The solutions we have may be different,” Stewart added. “But I had young children who had respiratory illnesses and I understand how hard it is when, you know, you walk outside and you can’t see your neighbor’s yard hardly because of the ozone.”

Stewart talked about his efforts to help secure funding for a University of Utah geothermal research facility. “Geothermal can be one of the real bright spots in renewable energy, and we don’t talk about it very much,” he said.

Stewart also said he’s helping to fund transportation projects in Utah, including double tracking FrontRunner and more money for a bus system in Logan.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, Utah’s only Black legislator, asked Stewart about “the amount of hate that is happening in our country right now,” pointing specifically to the recent suicide of a Black 10-year-old student at a Davis County elementary school, Isabella “Izzy” Faith Tichenor, after she was bullied at school.

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“It is absolutely heartbreaking” what parents have been telling her, Hollins told Stewart. “I’m just wondering if there’s anything at the national and federal level, any conversation around what is happening in this country or any ideas or solutions that have been discussed on how we as a nation can combat this.”

Stewart said that’s “maybe the most important question that could be asked today,” thanking Hollins. Stewart called Tichenor’s suicide “an eye-opening moment” for many Utahns. He talked about his suicide prevention efforts for both veterans and youth, noting Utah’s youth suicide rate is “shocking.”

Stewart said he wished he had a “magic solution,” but the “truth is I don’t have that. ... But I think hopefully good people can maybe monitor themselves enough that we individually can make a difference. And I know that’s such a stinking, lousy answer, but I don’t know what more to say.”

Hollins said one of the “biggest solutions” in her mind is “education around people and learning about people from different cultures.”

“Unfortunately we can’t write legislation around people’s heart and change their minds, but I think education is going to be one of the key components,” Hollins said.

On Russia, Stewart talked about the potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, adding that the U.S. has “known from some very sensitive intel that (President) Vladimir Putin’s intentions were to invade Ukraine.”

“We’ve expected that for probably 13 weeks, now,” Stewart said. “If he doesn’t invade Ukraine, it’s because he’s changed his mind, not because he never did.”

Stewart said President Joe Biden should make it clear the U.S. will support resistance fighters, but shouldn’t have troops on the ground, referencing the U.S.’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan. He said he would never support sending U.S. forces to defend Ukraine.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, presides over the House during the 2022 session of the Utah Legislature.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, presides over the House during the 2022 session of the Utah Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Rep. John Curtis’ comments to Utah Democrats

Curtis, who has prioritized climate change as what he has said should be a conservative cause, said natural gas has a role to play in the conversation.

“Having represented Carbon County, I know firsthand the problems when we demonize coal ... and how the people feel there when that happens,” Curtis told House Democrats. “We have work to do. We’ve got methane issues and other things to be good stewards out there. ... But I do think we can represent them well and at the same time do what’s right for the environment.”

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House Minority Assistant Whip Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, thanked Curtis for his work on climate change and asked him if he sees any opportunities to tie together that work with Biden’s infrastructure plan.

Curtis said the infrastructure plan does include money for nuclear energy, which he said is an important building block for a “green future.” He added an issue that’s “a little tough for Republicans” is methane.

“We need to accept that,” he said. “If we’re going to use natural gas as part of the solution, we’ve got to get a better control on methane.”

On election issues, Curtis told Senate Democrats he wished the rest of the U.S. “could look closer at what we’ve done here in Utah.”

“It’s unfortunate to see (voting) become such a partisan issue,” he said.

Contributing: Bridger Beal-Cvetko