Democratic lamb on the Hill
My freshman session in the Legislature is over. I learned a lot.
Remember the old adage "no free lunch"? Not true at the Utah Senate. The free comfort meals and fat-laden desserts are everywhere. The Freshman 20 has nothing to do with a subcommittee; it is a waistline issue. However, with a new Senate ethics crackdown, lobbyists can no longer pay for our lunch; now we have to hold a fundraiser off Capitol Hill and use that lobbyist money to pay for our own free lunch. Glad we got that straight.
The rural senators are my favorites. Someone decided that the new guy representing downtown Salt Lake City should not be on the Social Services or Higher Education committees. Instead, they shipped me off to Natural Resources and Agriculture. The assignment became a great favor, dealing with anything with a fishing pole, water rights or hunting.
Utah has some stunning (and greatly underfunded) state parks. On the interim break, I am heading out to milk cows with Sen. Ralph Okerlund in Monroe, hunt with Sen. David Hinkins in Price and "dispatch" to Grand County, and see Iron County's prairie dogs with Sen. Evan Vickers. Water law what could be more exciting?
Our legislators work hard and get paid a pittance. Truth is, I like every one of them personally, even the ones I was sure I wouldn't like.
I quickly learned that the senator you are in a death match with one minute is the senator you need five minutes later on another vote. Even though they crushed my bills like a soda can, after the vote we move on.
Surprising me, the GOP leadership, under President Wayne Niederhauser, was fair. The lions didn't really take this lamb's ideas a lot, but they did listen.
The sacrifice is real. I saw Sen. Margaret Dayton deluged by creepy emails for fighting for her values and constituents.
I saw Sen. Deidre Henderson (from Spanish Fork) with her five awesome kids at home, stay at a Salt Lake City hotel for most of the 45 days so she could be the first to arrive each morning.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard is the lion of the Senate. A conservative Republican from Logan, he is immensely busy as chair of Appropriations, yet he took a few minutes each day at noon to patiently school me on what had happened that morning on the floor. Now, if only I can get him to change his mind on Medicaid expansion.
Usually, Utah County Sens. John Valentine and Curt Bramble are the smartest guys in the room (unless Okerlund walks in). Valentine is dazzling with the rules. Bramble can be testy, but if there is a chain fight, I want him on my side.
Sen. Steve Urquhart of St. George can move the Senate with a speech. Urquhart's courage on LGBT nondiscrimination is the bravest stand by a legislator in a long, long time.
There is a special love in my heart for Democratic legislators. They fight, they work, they speak and they are there. They also lose a lot. But, they never give up. It was an honor to serve with them. Sen. Gene Davis and Rep. Jennifer Seelig, the Democratic leaders, herded our cats with fairness and panache.
I can only wonder how much better the state would be if there were a lot more Democrats. The debates would be less one-sided, the votes would be closer and the desperately needed scrutiny more intense.
One session down, a great experience I wish every Utahn could share at least once.
Jim Dabakis is a freshman state senator from District 2 in Salt Lake County and serves as chair of the state Democratic Party.