Among the newly minted Utah public servants taking the oath of office for city council posts last week were four whose elections may mark a slight shift in the state’s often predictable, mostly conservative political landscape.
All are openly gay.
Four out of hundreds of new elected officials statewide may not seem statistically significant, but it nonetheless represents a symbolic victory in a place where the religious and political culture has long worked against advancements for LGBTQ residents, Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams said.
When combined with those already in office — state Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, the capital city’s Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Councilman Derek Kitchen — Utah now has more openly LGBT people in office than ever before, Williams said.
“We are expanding our reach,” he said, crediting the marriage-equality movement with expanding political engagement in the community. “I think voters across the state are seeing LGBT people for their merits and for their hearts, and that the fears and biases they once had are melting away.”
“I would say for most people, the fact that I was a dog owner was more of a factor than me being gay.”
— Salt Lake City Councilman Chris Wharton.
In all, seven openly LGBT candidates ran for local office in 2017.
Of the four winners, two — Amy Fowler and Chris Wharton — were elected in Salt Lake City, while Midvale voters elected Dustin Gettel and Ogden residents re-elected city council member Marcia White.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the four-of-seven outcome is “better than I would have thought,” and suggests that attitudes among Utah voters are changing along with those in the rest of the country.
It wasn’t that long ago, he noted, that talking about a non-discrimination law, for example, would have sparked a political battle. That’s what happened in 2009, when Utah cities began passing ordinances banning discrimination in employment and housing, only to have the Legislature say no to statewide protections for LGBTQ residents. (A bill finally passed in 2015.)
“Those attitudes have been diminished,” Burbank said. “And when voters consider the attributes they want in candidates, sexual orientation just isn’t at the top of the list.”
Even some Utah conservatives agree.
Bill Duncan, director of the Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society, declined to comment on the issue, saying he didn’t “think the sexual orientation of the candidates is significant in itself.”
Despite those shifts, running and winning still isn’t easy.
Questions about sexuality or gender identity inevitably come up with voters, whose reactions run the gamut, both winners and losers said.
“One person told my campaign manager that he would never vote for a fag,” said Wharton, who represents Salt Lake City’s left-leaning Avenues neighborhood.
Strategies for addressing the issue seems to differ depending on where one lives. More progressive locales afford an opportunity to be “out” in a way that other communities don’t, said Taylor Knuth, 24, who ran and lost a bid for a council seat in Ogden. “Chris Wharton had this beautiful ad in the Tribune, a picture of him with his husband,” Knuth said. “I don’t know if my city or my county would have been ready for that.”
In fact, the 24-year-old said he was expressly advised not to tout his marriage in campaign literature, even though his incumbent opponent listed a 47-year marriage at the top of his list of qualifications for office.
“If I put being married out there, it’s seen as a liability,” Knuth said. “So there are inequities when running for office as a gay man.”
Gettel, who was sworn in on Tuesday, said he didn’t hide his sexuality, but also didn’t lead with it when talking to voters. That, he said, hasn’t seemed to work outside of Salt Lake City.
“In the suburbs it’s a slower approach,” said Gettel. “So for me it was like, ‘I’m a candidate for City Council and I happen to be gay.’”
Both Gettel and Wharton said most voters they spoke with were more interested in where they stood on various issues — from marriage to medical marijuana — and how they would solve city problems.
“I would say for most people, the fact that I was a dog owner was more of a factor than me being gay,” Wharton said. “A lot of people in District 3 have pets and the city deals with parks and trails. They wanted to know they were voting for someone who understands their concerns.”
Ogden’s Marcia White sailed to easy victory in Ogden in November, but said she’s found that it’s not always her sexuality that is the barrier for voters.
In 2013, when White first ran for office, an elderly voter didn’t blink an eye when she said she was married to a woman, but shut the door in her face after she disclosed that she was registered Democrat.
Like others, White said she wants voters to focus on the talents and qualities she brings to elected office. At the same time, she recognizes that as an LGBTQ person, she can speak to some issues with more credibility than some of her straight counterparts. Ogden, for example, is considering joining the ranks of cities that have publicly supported the need for a stronger statewide hate-crimes law.
“I don’t want it to be a gay thing,” said White, who has been the council chairwoman for the past two years. ���But I can say, ‘This is really, really important and I need you to help me.’”
White also understands just how important it is for others in the LGBTQ community to see her — and by extension themselves — in city leadership. It’s something she’s experienced firsthand in speaking at local schools.
“One kid had tears in his eyes,” said White. “And he said, ‘I have hope that I can do something some day.’”