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Interview: Jenny Wilson Wants to be Utah’s Senator

Image via KUER 90.1

“People working at the local level are indeed the people who understand how to make the federal government more responsive…”

As a fifth-generation Utahn and a current member of the Salt Lake County Council, Jenny Wilson has experience with Utah’s political situation. Now, she hopes to create change on the federal level, running as a candidate for U.S. Senate. As a Democrat in a traditionally “red state,” Ms. Wilson has frequently reached across the aisle. In this May 31st interview with Merion West‘s Erich Prince, Ms. Wilson discusses finding common ground in our polarized times, her views on campaign financing, and how experience in local politics can inform decisions in Washington.

To get started, Mitt Romney and Mike Kennedy had their debate this week. Did you watch it? And if so, what are some of your reactions?

I did watch it, and, in fact, I attended it. I thought it was interesting. I think clearly both are doubling down on Trump. I think it’s very much a Republican primary as they try to reach out to the Republican voters. One of the interesting things about the debate is it felt very much like a traditional federal debate, and these are not traditional times; this is an era of disruption. And it felt a little bit hopeful to me, given the challenges we face in our communities right now.

Moving on to you a little bit. You served on the Salt Lake County Council from 2005 to 2011, and you were elected to a second term in 2014. You’ve also held a number of other roles in politics from a press secretary to a chief of staff on Capitol Hill, so you’re no newcomer to federal or local politics. But speaking more locally, what are some of the efforts within Utah during your time on the Salt Lake Council that you’re particularly proud of and that you think will prepare you for mounting this Senate campaign?

So, I served a third of the state’s population in the most populated urban county. [The county] also happens to have our capital city and is home to our airport. Most people are familiar with Salt Lake City, and Salt Lake City is one of the seventeen cities that I represent. It’s also the city that I live in. So, I have a very diverse set of duties as a county council member. From land management to canyon protection to art support to tourism, the list goes on.

When I was first elected to the County Council, we needed significant reform in county government. So the first thing I did was reach across the aisle to a newly-elected Republican. We actually insisted that they pass various ethics reforms, including campaign finance limits. So those are one of the things I consider to be one of my major accomplishments.

Additionally, I entered in 2004, and there was no parity among our employees, between those, who were affiliated with LGBTQ and had partners at home, and those employees who have traditional families. So, I rolled up my sleeves and looked at what was going on in the nation’s health benefits and restructured a policy that took a little bit to pass. But, after a couple of tries, I was able to get what was necessary. And I’m very proud that today we have thousands of employees who have been able to get coverage for their partners. Now that we have marriage equality that’s less of an issue, but it was a very important issue in the years prior.

I’m glad you alluded to this in your last answer because it’s something I wanted to ask you about, and that’s reaching across the aisle. I know you talked in your Rubin Report interview about your nostalgia for the days when Republican Orrin Hatch and Democrat Ted Kennedy worked together. During that interview, you also discussed some of the bipartisan efforts made by the Salt Lake County Council, which I understand is something like a five-four split, if I remember correctly, between Republicans and Democrats. How has working across the aisle prepared you for potentially going to Washington in these polarized times? 

At the local level, we figure out how to solve problems. I have, I think, the advantage of working in a pretty much evenly balanced government. We have many elected officials who serve our county: the treasurer, the surveyor, who are Republican. Our chief executive is a Democrat. Then on my own council, there are five Republicans and four Democrats.

My day-to-day work is in outreach to a Republican leader on tax policy and working with my colleagues on a given issue. And I will say there are times when we are divided. When there’s five of us one way, four the other, sometimes we do hit a dead end. But that is a very, very rare day. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done in creating consensus, being willing to moderate my own position, give a little, and compromise.

And I think that the people in my county are really pleased with that style and are demanding that from our federal government. When I go out and ask [voters] what they think about the federal government, not many bring up Trump. But, almost always, someone says, “I don’t like the bickering. I don’t like the party divide. Why can’t we just get along?”

You’ve had a number of years in local government. I remember a speech this January by Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, and his point was that politicians with experience in city or local government are more focused on day-to-day problem solving, rather than a lot of large-scale big ideas. The suggestion is that if you’re more concerned with the macro and ideology, you might be more likely to get swept up in the partisan idea wars, rather than a focus on getting things done. Do you agree with Mayor Landrieu on that sentiment?

Yes, I completely agree with Mayor Landrieu that we, at the local level, have a sense of urgency to getting things done. One example is the opioid crisis, and I’m actually–when I finish this interview–heading up to a press conference [on this situation]. I’m on the state opioid task force, and I also run, with a Republican, a local county opioid task force. So I am participating today in a press conference where our state has decided to sue Purdue Pharma—and perhaps other pharma companies. We are working locally, and we are really getting leads on these issue related to how we can change our community. Even if we are one of many states, most states in the nation are indeed suffering from really devastating addiction. It’s tearing apart families and killing people.

At the local level, I think we have a sense of the very complex policy issues that need to be put into place. At the federal level, we’re seeing some funding finally, but there is a delay in determining whether or not this is truly a declared national emergency. There’s been debate. Then, I look at Children’s Health Insurance and how that was held up for negotiations. What I mean [is that] in D.C., we literally put kids’ health on the line. And I’m frustrated by that, and I firmly believe that to change Washington, we need a new generation of leaders. People working at the local level are indeed the people who understand how to make the federal government more responsive to those of us on the ground here trying to help our communities.

I know you’ve spoken a fair amount about campaign finance issues, and there is this split within the Democratic Party between the more traditional camp, when it comes to fundraising, and then the more progressive wing, including Bernie Sanders and, say, Jumaane Williams in New York, who are looking to change how Democratic candidates fundraise. They want to rely more on crowdsourcing or smaller contributions. What sort of changes would you like to see in how the Democratic Party fundraises? 

I could probably do an entire interview on this issue because I think our system is completely broken. You know we raised money—right it sounds like a lot of money to me—but relatively low increments of $2,700 per person per cycle, which is $5,400 at most for me because I have two cycles. I won my convention outright, and I’m not going to a primary. It’s still a lot of money, and I think that we would be better served by allowing some level of federal dollars to come into the system and create a fair playing field. Of course, we have to require that we have some sort of legitimacy for a candidate and a requirement that people get low dollar contribution to meet that federal match.

I think that overturning Citizens United is paramount to this. It’s really unfortunate. and I think some candidates are very limited in their ability to get their message out without reform. More importantly, I think there is a spark in that influence on the system from big funders and lobbyists. Back to the opioid crisis, we are seeing that an exorbitant amount of pharmaceutical money has gone to Orrin Hatch, for example, who is vacating his seat in Utah—and to many other senators and members of Congress. I think it’s one of the biggest problems we face in our country right now.

Utah is widely considered a “red state.” In states like Utah, states that routinely vote for one of the two parties, solidly red or blue states, what can a candidate do to reach out to independent or moderate voters and sell their message, even in our polarized times? 

I mentioned earlier; we are in an era of disruption. Some of it is positive, and some of it is not. I think those of us who don’t fall in line with the Trump agenda would say that it’s negative. The positive is that people are engaged and speaking out. Even in the state of Utah, I look at that number of young people that showed up to our march [for gun control], calling for measures to change the equation and pass legislation—not just “thoughts and prayers.” I look at the women across the spectrum, who are saying, “Enough is enough, and my voice matters.”

So I really feel that for independent candidates, this is our moment. I’m a Democrat, but I believe in independence. I have always done that in my role as an elected official and in [politics before]. I worked for a “Blue Dog Democrat” in Washington. I believe this is the year where people are rejecting partisan politics. People are tired of it. I hear from hardened Democrats that we need to get along, and we need to work together. We need to restore the conversations again that happened years ago, when respectfully the Ted Kennedy’s worked with the Orrin Hatches. They got things done. So I’m really relying on the voice of the people this year, and this is what they’re asking for.

Thank you for your time today, Ms. Wilson.

Thank you. Have a great day.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.