Rolly: Utah senator turns on iPad, tunes out audience
Published: January 20, 2014 12:22PM
Updated: March 24, 2014 11:34PM
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Paul Rolly

Sen. Howard Stephenson is passionate about digital learning and is a leader in the Legislature in promoting computer education programs in public schools.

Perhaps, though, Stephenson might be too passionate about electronic devices.

The Draper Republican was good enough to stand in for a fellow senator to analyze the upcoming legislative session at a meeting of the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women on Jan. 11.

He joined Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, and Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, on a panel that took questions the moderator had gathered from the mostly female audience of about 100 people.

Whether it was because Stephenson was the only man on the panel and the audience was nearly all women, or because he is one of the Utah Senate’s most conservative members addressing two groups known to be moderate to left-leaning, it seemed that he didn’t want to be there.

He had two electronic devices — a smartphone and an iPad — which were drawing most of his attention, even while the emcee delivered the questions.

When it was Stephenson’s turn to answer a question about improving Utah’s air quality, the senator looked up from his iPad and said he didn’t know much about that subject so he had to pass.

He then turned his attention back to his electronic screen.

A few seconds later, when another panelist was speaking, Stephenson excitedly glanced up from his iPad and blurted to the crowd: “A-Rod [embattled baseball star Alex Rodriguez] just got a one-year suspension.”

Stephenson then buried his head back into the iPad screen, leaving the audience visibly stunned.

If I had done that during class in high school, I would have been sent to the principal’s office.

It’s not the first time Stephenson has appeared a bit awkward when facing a group or a representative of a group he might disagree with.

He caused a stir last legislative session when a Utah PTA official expressed that organization’s position on an issue before the Senate Education Committee. Stephenson began grilling her about the PTA’s legitimacy in representing parents and teachers.

When appearing a few years ago on a panel, which included me, at the conservative Sutherland Institute, Stephenson described his willingness to listen to all sides of an issue and mentioned separate meetings he recently had conducted with private-school voucher advocates and Utah Education Association allies.

He was surprised when it was pointed out to him by another panelist, John Saltas of Salt Lake City Weekly, that he had described the first group as “concerned citizens” and the second group as a “mob.”

This past Saturday, Stephenson had as his co-host on his weekly Red Meat Radio program Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork. He jokingly mentioned that he was playing the role of the woman that day because he was the one who brought cookies.

That comment was followed by a discussion between Stephenson and Henderson about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of sexist comments.

prolly@sltrib.com