The first in a series on the Democratic candidates challenging Utah’s Republican incumbents in this year’s congressional midterm races.
All four of Utah’s Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives are up for re-election this November. In a deeply red state, Democrats face a daunting task of trying to unseat them.
Perhaps the steepest climb for any challenger is in Utah’s 1st Congressional District, where eight-term incumbent Rob Bishop holds a huge lead in name recognition, experience and fund-raising over his political rookie challenger.
Like the other Democrats running for office this year, Lee Castillo is new to politics, but he’s determined to send packing the deep-pocketed Republican who has represented this deep-red territory for 15 years.
But voters first have to learn his name.
On a Thursday night in late July, Cheryl Butler, chair of the Summit County Democratic Party, introduced Castillo to a crowd of about 30 people gathered at the Park City Library.
“We need a Congressman from Congressional District 1 who’s somebody we can be proud of.” she says before adding, “And we got him here with us tonight.”
Castillo sat at a table in the back covered with campaign swag and a bowl of Tootsie Rolls. He quickly made his way to the front of the room and thanked those who helped him defeat businessman Kurt Weiland in the June primary.
“I’m going to ask you guys to throw your support again because we need to make sure that Rob Bishop comes home this November,” he says.
Castillo, a 41-year-old social worker and father of two, was born and raised in Layton, Utah.
Since his primary victory, Castillo has embarked on a noticeably upbeat campaign. It’s a tact that stands out in a district ranked as one of the 15 most conservative in the country.
Castillo attributes that, in part, to his upbringing. Raised by what he describes as a “militant Hispanic dad” in a Catholic family, Castillo faced a hostile environment when he came out to his parents as gay.
“I grew up hearing derogatory terms my whole life as it was really hard to achieve any goals — aspire to be anything when you feel so terrible about yourself,” he said. “I remember praying to a picture of Jesus and asking for God to change me to not be gay.”
That adversity, which included being homeless for a spell, steered Castillo toward social work. He works for the Utah State Hospital in Provo, traveling around the state’s county jails to aid those struggling with mental illness. He also volunteers helping homeless youth.
Castillo has been driving all over this sprawling northern Utah district, that includes Box Elder, Cache, Uintah and a half-dozen other counties, listening to voters and trying to spread his inclusive message.
“I am a paycheck-to-paycheck kind of guy,” he said. “And we have people making decisions that don't realize how hard it is for people to have health care, to get the treatment that they need to get their medications — to get mental health treatment.”
Health care and the environment are two issues Castillo has focused on in his pursuit of the seat. Those are safe positions for the Democrat to take against Bishop, whose repeated votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and roll back environmental regulations have made him persona non grata to the left.
But Bishop has his backers, especially in northern Utah’s rural towns, that rely on natural resource extraction for jobs.
But that’s not unfamiliar terrority for Castillo, who says he has family who works in the oil industry. He says he understands the discomfort some communities have when they hear liberals talk about climate change and green job. Still, Castillo said he believes, this is the way forward for Utah.
“Renewable energy solar — there's things that could be done to prevent these towns from becoming ghost towns in the future as we become less and less dependent on oil and gas,” he said.
Summit County Democrat Cheryl Butler thinks Bishop’s record speaks for itself — even if Bishop doesn’t.
“Our voices really aren’t heard. We rarely, if ever, see the Congressman here in our district,” she said. “He doesn’t return phone calls or emails. … So I think there is a huge level of disenchantment that’s grown over his years in office.”
Bishop’s last town hall was in August 2017, when he told constituents that he would run for one more term in Congress. Among the quietest members of Utah’s federal delegation, the congressman announced four more town halls beginning Tuesday in Vernal.
Still, Castillo will have much catching up to do, and not just because of the district’s partisan tilt. He’s currently raised about $5,000 for his bid compared to $800,000 by Bishop.
There’s another complication this year: a well-funded third-party candidate. Eric Eliason of the new moderate United Utah Party is hoping to drum up support among disaffected Republicans who are not on board with the Trump era.
Castillo says he’s not concerned about that. He believes Eliason’s presence on the ballot will divert more Republican votes.
Nan Chalat-Noaeker isn’t worried either. She’s a Summit County Democratic delegate and goes up to Castillo after his stump speech to give him a pep talk.
“If you ever get discouraged, listen to Obama’s ‘Fired Up Ready to Go’ on YouTube... do you know that one?” she asks Castillo, who shakes his head “No.”
Chalat-Noaker goes on to recite one of the most memorable chants of President Obama’s 2008 campaign, which Obama often used to describe how he overcame low points in his run for office.
Castillo laughs and says he’ll look it up soon. Hoping to channel his own version of a grassroots-style insurgency in the 1st District, Castillo tells Chalat-Noaker he is fired up and ready to go.
Check back tomorrow for KUER’s profile of Shireen Ghorbani, the Democratic candidate running in Utah’s 2nd District.