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New governor? Redistricting? Pandemic endgame? Utah politics saw it all in 2021

A photo of Gov. Spencer Cox at a press conference.
Rick Egan
The Salt Lake Tribune
For the first time in a decade, Utah swore in a new governor. In his first year, Spencer Cox oversaw a massive vaccine rollout and continued divisions within his own Republican party.

There are just a few days left in 2021. To take a look back on what happened in Utah politics, KUER reporters Emily Means and Sonja Hutson joined All Things Considered host Caroline Ballard for a recap of the year's biggest stories.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: We started 2021 with a new governor for the first time in more than 10 years. Sonja, what has Spencer Cox's first year in office been like?  

Sonja Hutson: Those first few months were really dominated by COVID. Gov. Cox did a pretty good job at rolling out vaccines efficiently. He was not as good, however, at convincing lots of people to get those vaccines. There’s still a lot of room for improvement there.

Another notable piece of his time in office so far is that he has at times not been afraid to criticize his own party. After the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, he said that [former President Donald] Trump incited that violence. He also criticized a state bill that would have banned transgender girls from competing in school sports, although he did not criticize the actual Republican representative who was running it.

But there were also times where he said he disagreed with a bill, but signed it anyway in order to preserve his relationship with the state Legislature.

CB: One of those bills where he maybe personally disagreed with it but still signed it was the pandemic endgame bill. Emily, remind us what that was.

Emily Means: By the end of the legislative session this year, we were coming up on one year of the pandemic, and Republican lawmakers really wanted public health restrictions to be rolled back. So this pandemic endgame bill set thresholds for when those restrictions would end, and it ended the statewide mask mandate. Now, Cox negotiated the mask mandate to end about a month later than what was originally proposed by lawmakers. But Cox still signed the bill, and now we're still seeing a lot of cases and hospitalizations. There's a lot of uncertainty with the omicron variant spreading. So even though we no longer meet those thresholds laid out in the pandemic endgame law, that bill made it harder to enact restrictions.

CB: State politics wasn't the only thing we were watching this year. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT, was at the center of continued controversy over his criticism of former President Trump at the state Republican Party convention in May. He was booed. You were there, Sonja. What was it like to be in that room?  

SH: It was kind of wild, honestly. The convention was held in the Maverik Center in West Valley City, which is an arena, and the press table was down on the ground level. So it was kind of like surround sound booing. It was very, very loud. Meanwhile, our other Sen. Mike Lee, R-UT, who is very much a Trump ally, got the rock star treatment when he came out on stage. And to me, that really demonstrated the deep divisions within the Utah Republican Party and the national Republican Party.

CB: Fast forward to nearly the end of 2021. Every 10 years, legislators redraw the state's boundaries based on new census data. And this year, Utah got new district boundaries for Congress, the state Legislature and the state school board. And it ended up being a pretty explosive, dramatic process. Emily, tell us how it all went down. 

EM: It was dramatic. This year was the first time we've had the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission on the job. Now, they're just an advisory group, and the Legislature has the final say in the redistricting process. Near the end of this process, one of the commissioners –– former Republican Congressman Rob Bishop –– resigned in the middle of a meeting. He said the commission drew maps that favored urban areas of the state. That means they would favor Democrats. So Bishop just walked out of this meeting, and then legislators adopted maps that pretty much guaranteed all the congressional districts would favor Republicans. So basically, they got rid of the state's only swing district. And lots of people were mad that they didn't vote on the independent commission's maps, because the commission was created by a ballot initiative and that was supported by the public.

CB: Politics is an intense beat. What was a project that you had a lot of fun reporting?  

EM: Well, we have to mention our politics podcast State Street. I think that was definitely the most fun we had talking about politics this year. We really just wanted to make Utah politics easy to understand so that if people want to get involved they have a starting point to do that.

SH: One of my favorite things we did on the podcast was we took a civic engagement quiz where we basically found out our civic engagement “love languages,” and there were some really cool tips and tricks for folks to get involved, depending on what their civic engagement love language was. And if you want to brush up on your Utah politics knowledge before the legislative session starts in just a couple of weeks, you can check out the whole first season wherever you get your podcasts.

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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