Greening the Legislature: Outsiders Face Uphill Fight
About a dozen people are crowded into a living room in Holladay to hear Ty Markham. She's a Democrat running for Utah House District 73. It spans six downstate counties that include voters from Beaver to Monticello and Kanab. Its been represented by Republican Mike Noel for over a decade.
“It may be a unique opportunity,” she tells them, “to mobilize all those wonderful people who are in our area, the six counties that I would represent…”
So why is a fundraiser for this race being held here in northern Utah and not in its home district -- maybe at a ranch outside Panguitch or a café in Blanding?
"The reason we're gathered here,” says Allison Jones, director of the Wild Utah Project, a conservation group based in Salt Lake City, “is because representatives like Mike Noel have undue influence in the Legislature on some key public land issues that the majority of the residents of Utah, many of which live in the Wasatch Front, don't feel the same way on."
Green-minded Utahns like Jones want to see more people like Markham in the State Legislature. They’re fed up with what they see as extreme rhetoric around conservation issues in Utah’s Republican-controlled statehouse.
“For example keeping federal lands in federal hands so we can continue to enjoy that federal lands owned by all Americans,” says Jones.
Utah environmentalists often complain they don’t have a loud enough voice in state politics, that they’re outsiders in their own state. But during this election year they’ve lined up candidates in some big public-lands districts, and they’re taking the campaign to some surprising places.
Lawmakers rarely call on conservationists to weigh in on important environmental issues like spending tens of millions of dollars to promote coal or fighting the proposal for a new national monument that would be in District 73.
"We need different representation,” says Kirsten Allen, who’s hosting the Holladay fundraiser. She’s a part-time resident of Torrey, a town in District 73 outside Capitol Reef National Park.
She’s convinced other green-minded voters share her frustrations with legislative politics. They live in and around Utah's wildlands, or play there, and Allen says it’s time state policies reflect their values, too.
"The power of state legislators is incredible, particularly in our state with a super majority,” she says, “and it's just been really exciting to have so many people say, ‘yes, I want to donate to Ty,’ even though she's not their representative," says Allen.
Nobody seems surprised by this.
"The fact that the woman from Torrey's doing a fundraiser in Holladay fits into that mold,” says Jeff Hartley. He’s a longtime GOP insider who served as executive director of the state Republican Party and now lobbies for energy companies.
“That probably makes sense for her in terms of where she can raise money,” he says, “I doubt she's going to raise it from the cattle ranchers in Kanab, but the folks in Holladay probably share her politics.
“That probably makes a lot of sense. She'd probably do well to do a fundraiser in Park City too."
Matthew Burbank, a political scientist at the University of Utah, says it’s especially difficult for challengers to defeat incumbents.
“When you're running against somebody who's a Republican in rural Utah,” he says, “honestly, you know, it's going to be an uphill fight all the way."
Enter a new political action committee for pro-environment candidates. Green Votes for Utah intends to raise $30,000 this year. That’s roughly five times what environmental policy groups contributed to legislative candidates over the past decade, according to the web site followthemoney.org. And it’s pocket change compared to nearly $2.5 million dollars that the energy, agriculture and natural resources sectors gave during the same period.
Burbank says outsider candidates like Markham won’t have a shot at a seat without campaign cash.
“So,” he says, “what you have here is people who are advocates for the environment kind of saying. 'Yes, we're going to raise the money. We're going to see if we can't make this a more competitive race'”
But Hartley’s not convinced that money is key here. He contends Utah's legislature is already as green as it should be. He says green activists push issues too far for Utah's moderate environmental ethic.
"People who vote and the general public are both pretty environmentally balanced here,” he says, “where a lot of the Democratic environmental policies are a little left of that position."
At their State Convention in April, Democrats said in speech after speech that they represent the mainstream on environmental issues.
After the Holladay fundraiser, Markham was there, talking about the logistics of running for election in a district nearly as vast as the state of West Virginia. With a “Mormons for Bernie” button pinned to her lapel, she talked about sharing a message of common ground with the district’s 38,000 -- even on the question of public lands.
“There are lots of issues that are going to resonate with everyone in our district,” she says. “And, Democrats, in this case myself, we're not going to be worrying about lawsuits and using tax dollars to fight all these big lawsuits that really have little chance.”
Markham says its time to focus more on rural Utah’s economic and education challenges and less saber-rattling against the federal government.
"I'm excited about this -- I think this is our year,” she says. “I believe this is really going to be to be the time when we really turn the tide in Utah."
Markham’s ready for the long haul, all the fundraising and door-knocking of a full-blown campaign. She has over four months to make her case to rural Utah before Election Day.