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Politics & Government

Utah lawmakers are overwhelmingly white and male. Some people are trying to change that

An illustration of a business woman being held back by red tape.
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iStockphoto
In the 2021 General Session, 76% of Utah legislators were men. Some say the body should look more like Utah's demographic makeup as a whole.

When it comes to the Utah Legislature, it doesn't exactly look like the state's demographics. It's more white, Republican and male than Utah actually is. And that idea carries through to most levels of government in Utah, with white men making up the bulk of elected officials. KUER politics reporter and State Street co-host Emily Means sat down with Caroline Ballard to discuss why that is and who's trying to change it.

Caroline Ballard: If the Legislature were embodied in one person, who would that person be?

Emily Means: I put that question to Holly Richardson. She's a former Republican state representative. And here's what she said:

Holly Richardson: Well, bless their heart, they would be a white Republican man who was LDS and probably involved in real estate.

EM: Holly didn't just pull that idea out of nowhere, Caroline. This is something she's really familiar with. She was in the Legislature back in 2011, and she's also been engaged in Utah politics in some form or other for two decades. And she's right. There are a lot of white Republican men here in the Legislature. Also, when you look at the breakdown of the Legislature by career, you see a lot of people who have flexibility in their work lives to be able to take 45 days off work for the legislative session and even more throughout the year.

CB: Why is that? 

EM: Holly said it comes down to three things. The first is who gets asked to run. Men just get asked more. They get recruited by their lobbying organizations or their professional networks to run for office.

Number two is men get a lot of support when they do run. Professional organizations give men support from the beginning of their campaign all the way until they cross the finish line. Holly called this a ‘campaign in a box.’

Lastly, there are some cultural ideas that get in the way around who belongs in public office, and some of these are internalized, like women thinking they need to know everything before they jump in the race. But there's also external cultural attitudes that discourage women from running. Holly said that's something that she's faced, too.

HR: And so I remember one where this person said, ‘You have no right to run for office. You belong at home with your kids.’ That was it. ‘You have no right to run.’ Like, wow. ‘Yes, I do!’

CB: Well, what about other levels of government — things like city councils or county commissions? 

EM: It's actually a lot of the same struggles for the same reasons. We talked to one woman running for City Council in Ogden. Her name is Priscilla Martinez, and she's a young Latina woman. She's running because she wants more representation for her community on the city council, and Priscilla told us about one thing she faced that would probably never happen if she were a man. She was trying to choose a photo for her campaign website, and she got some pushback on this photo that she really liked.

Priscilla Martinez: I'm pretty sure they meant good and wanted to help. But in reality, they said ‘Maybe you shouldn't pose that way. You shouldn’t fold your arms because you may be perceived as too strong. Voters don't like that, and they don't like strong women.’

EM: Priscilla said that made her question herself. But in the end, she did choose that photo –– the one with her arms crossed –– because it was important to her to be authentic and true to herself.

CB: What kind of an outlook do Holly and Priscilla have for the potential for more people of different backgrounds –– women, people from minority communities –– to become lawmakers?

EM: Priscilla said one really big barrier is that for her, as a woman of color, there aren't a ton of people who look like her in positions of leadership, so it's kind of hard to envision yourself in those roles. But the more different kinds of people get elected, the more potential there is for a ripple effect there.

As for getting to a legislature that's more representative of Utah's population, Holly said there needs to be a proactive approach like actively seeking out and supporting people who aren't men and people from other marginalized groups to help them run for office and be successful.

And Caroline, if running for office isn't your speed, we'll talk about other ways to get engaged in politics in our next and final [season one] State Street episode.

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