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How Jen Plumb plans to help her progressive district in a GOP supermajority world

Jen Plumb and her daughter take a selfie on the steps of the Utah State Capitol during the March 24, 2022 protest of the Legislature's transgender sports bill.
Ivana Martinez
Jen Plumb and her daughter take a selfie on the steps of the Utah State Capitol during the March 24, 2022 protest of the Legislature's transgender sports bill.

Jen Plumb, a pediatric trauma doctor, ousted Salt Lake City Democratic incumbent Sen. Derek Kitchen by a slim 61 votes in the June primary. But that doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing for Plumb — either in the Legislature or her district.

Primary voters in Utah’s Senate District 9 didn’t have a skyrocketing turnout. Only 44% of registered voters submitted their ballot. Sherrie Swensen, the Salt Lake County Clerk, said more people showed up in 2018 when Kitchen beat Plumb for one of the only Democratic seats in the state Senate.

“He [Kitchen] won by 550 votes. So he had a much higher margin,” Swensen said. “Still a close contest, but nothing like this one, down to less than a hundred.”

This election was closely watched, even though roughly 8,700 people voted out of 55,000 active voters in the district. A lower voter turnout is pretty normal in a primary election, Swensen said, but she noted it “really depends on the race” if people decide to vote.

Kitchen ran on a progressive platform, most recently proposing to raise the legal age to buy a firearm to 21 and to codify marriage equality into Utah law.

Plumb ran on a platform about “delivering results” which would require her to work across party lines to accomplish her promise to voters.

Working with a supermajority

Despite the primary win by a thin margin in one of Utah’s most progressive districts, Plumb is still up against a Republican supermajority if she’s elected to the Utah Senate in November.

Though, she said she already has Legislative wins under her belt.

In 1996, Plumb lost her brother to a heroin overdose. Since then, she said she’s fought to increase awareness surrounding the opioid crisis, which on average claims the lives of 567 Utahns per year, according to the Utah Department of Health.

In the last seven years, Plumb said she’s been working with the Legislature to pass “some really liberal and progressive policies” regarding the opioid crisis, harm reduction and opioid overdose prevention. As a result, Plumb said the state has established the very first syringe exchange program and made Naloxone, an overdose reversal drug, available to every Utahn that wants it.

The trick to getting Republicans to listen to viewpoints they may not agree with is humanizing the subject, she said.

“When we tried to get legislators to introduce bills to look at syringe exchange, to look at Naloxone access, you couldn't even get someone to consider it, let alone open a bill file,” Plumb said. “What it takes in those kinds of spaces where there is this moral question that comes into play in some people's minds, you have to humanize it.”

Plumb noted if she doesn’t compromise with the supermajority, they’ll isolate her from giving input on various bills. If Plumb goes in “throwing bombs,” she said it would be harder for her to pass legislation aligned with her top issues, such as the rights of transgender youth and how to spend the $300 million in opioid settlement money coming down the pipeline to Utah.

Appeasing constituents

But Plumb doesn’t just have to work within the confines of the Republican-dominated Utah Legislature. She also has to keep her constituents happy — and that’s something Plumb said she recognizes.

“I would be in some pretty wicked denial to not acknowledge that,” she said. “Half of the folks voted for me and half didn't.”

Currently, there are more registered Democrats (over 19,000) in the ninth district than any other party, according to Swensen. Additionally, she’s witnessed Salt Lake County shift more blue since she’s been the county clerk. She attributes the increased Democratic support to the removal of straight-party voting.

“But it's still a mixture [of Republican and Democrats] for sure,” Swensen said. “I mean, depending on the contest, the area, the county, it's competitive.”

Although the district’s political demographics are predominantly Democratic, there’s still work to be done to gain the support of her constituents.

“I feel like there's going to need to be a ton of outreach and connecting with folks who didn't perhaps see me as their candidate and find ways that I can understand their struggles and that I can work on the things that they want me to work on,” Plumb said.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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