Wilson's benefits push: A profile of persistence if not courage

Published February 19, 2009 9:07 pm
4-year fight » County councilwoman came up one vote short time after time, but never gave up.
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How hard could it be? she thought.

In her mind, she wasn't asking for anything "radical." Democratic Councilwoman Jenny Wilson simply wanted to offer wider health benefits to Salt Lake County employees.

But her colleagues warned about political pushback: "You won't get a Republican vote," Councilman Joe Hatch told her.

The reason: This health plan would extend coverage to employees' gay and lesbian partners -- a first for any Utah government. Little did she know that it would take nearly four years, two elections and one flip in party power to notch her victory, thanks to this week's council vote.

"It really did seem so nonsensical to me," Wilson says, recalling her shock after the council's GOP majority rejected domestic-partner benefits for the first time in July 2005. "This is not gay marriage. This is not civil unions. This is not an earth-shattering movement in the expansion of gay rights."

But Republicans feared it would provide legal recognition to same-sex couples and denigrate the traditional family.

Since that 5-4 defeat, Wilson has plotted a persistent course toward widening county benefits to include nontraditional families. It's a deeply personal push that touches not only on her sympathies for gay and lesbian couples, but also for the uninsured families she encountered at Primary Children's Medical Center -- during her own son's open-heart surgery in 2002 -- who were devastated by medical emergencies.

"I have never seen it [this campaign] as an act of courage," Wilson says. "It is what I believe."

It's a perspective shaped by her progressive upbringing (her father is former Democratic Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson); a position influenced by her friendship with a gay mentor at the Sundance Institute who couldn't marry his lifelong partner; and a cause crystallized by her coordination of a health-care initiative known as the Covering Kids Campaign, in which she met uninsured families who wouldn't let their children play sports because of possible injuries.

"She never wavered," says Mike Thompson, executive director of Equality Utah. "She was determined to bring this back until the majority of council members agreed on the importance of this issue."

Wilson's drive began in 2005, just months after taking office. She remained convinced -- despite colleagues' doubts -- that she could snag a GOP vote. But with TV cameras clogging the council chamber, she failed.

It wasn't long before her hometown of Salt Lake City passed its own insurance plan for gay and lesbian partners, framed under an "adult-designee" program that includes any financially codependent friend, family member or domestic partner living in the employee's household. It wasn't Wilson's win, but after collaborating with the capital on its plan, it sure felt like it.

Wilson then brought an "adult designee" pitch -- not a domestic-partner one -- to the county in April 2008. And this time, she thought she had a fifth vote in Republican Mark Crockett.

But Crockett was willing to extend health benefits only if the recipients paid the full premium. Again, Wilson fell one vote short.

Even today, Crockett says he, too, wanted broader coverage. But this wasn't how to provide it.

"It will be a mistake to create a new legally protected class," he says. "I think there was a simpler way to do it, without all of the other legal implications."

Wilson felt betrayed. "I believed that Mark and I were on the same page."

She had changed her approach. Now it was time to change party power. So Wilson campaigned for Democratic newcomer Jani Iwamoto, who ousted Crockett in November and handed Democrats a one-seat edge on the council.

On Tuesday, Wilson rolled out her plan for a third time. She got her victory (she even picked up a GOP nod from freshman Max Burdick) and employees got their new benefits,

But for her triumph, only one TV camera showed up. Wilson received a simple commendation from Hatch and the agenda moved on.

"We didn't open up the champagne or anything," she says. "I was relieved."

jstettler@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">jstettler@sltrib.com

Wilson's war

July 2005 » Democratic Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, in July 2005, champions employment benefits for domestic partners. The measure fails 5-4.

April 2008 » Wilson widens her proposal in April 2008 to include benefits for "adult designees." It fails again 5-4.

Tuesday » She prevails Tuesday with a plan providing health insurance and other benefits to "adult designees" of county workers. It passes 6-3.

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