It was a tale of two presidents for Utahns this year:
One is challenging orthodoxy, stoking national divisions, piling up staggering deficits and, despite becoming the third such leader to be impeached, shows no signs of backing down.
Another is changing a church, striving for global unity, sitting on eye-popping surpluses and, despite approaching centenarian status, shows no signs of letting up.
Meanwhile, protests brought reforms to the state’s premier public university and a faith’s flagship school, along with heightened security — and attention — to plans for an inland port.
A city councilwoman won a promotion at the ballot box and a billionaire businesswoman won applause in a sports arena.
Navajo commissioners are remaking a struggling county, state lawmakers remade the tax code, and new shelters are reimagining homeless services.
Oh, and the beer has never been better.
So before 2019 fades out, take a few minutes to drink it all in:
Utah’s impeachment imprint
The Mueller report regarding Russia turned out to be the undercard to the main event involving Ukraine.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team documented Moscow’s “sweeping and systematic” interference in the 2016 presidential election but did not determine that Donald Trump’s campaign colluded in this unprecedented assault on U.S. democracy and dodged the determination — despite the evidence investigators cited — of whether the White House obstructed justice.
Then came Trump’s phone call — a “perfect” one, he insists — with Ukraine’s president. Did Trump abuse his office by withholding U.S. aid to an ally to prod the foreign leader to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter?
That call and the intrigue surrounding it became the focus of a House impeachment inquiry, complete with closed and open hearings and high-stakes political sparring.
[More year in review: Notable Utah deaths of 2019: Pioneers, artists, coaches, whistleblowers and difference makers]
Enter the Utah delegation. Freshman Rep. Ben McAdams, the lone Democrat in the bunch and sweating his tenuous grip on a seat in a Republican district, backed the investigation and ultimately voted for impeachment, with the Trump campaign proclaiming that the Utahn’s “political career is over.”
His Utah GOP colleagues, with varying degrees of gusto, voted against impeachment — as did all the House Republicans.
Rep. Chris Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, emerged as a chief defender of Trump and a principal offender to Democrats, accusing them of staging a “coup” against the president.
In the Capitol’s other ring, Sen. Mike Lee stayed in Trump’s corner, while Sen. Mitt Romney — a freshman, yes, but, as a former Republican standard-bearer, still seen as a political heavyweight — came out swinging against the president, criticizing his “appalling” actions. His shots so stung the president that Trump fought back, unleashing a tweet jab that tattooed the Utahn as a “pompous ass.”
At year’s end, the Democratic-led House voted to impeach Trump on two charges — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — but few observers believe the GOP-majority Senate will KO the president. That decision will rest next November with the supreme referees: voters.
The energizer saint
Whoever says older folks are afraid of change has never seen Russell M. Nelson in action.
In his nearly two years in office, the 95-year-old president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is overseeing an unprecedented period of rapid reforms, rescissions, adjustments and announcements.
This agent of change picked up this year right where he left off last year. On Jan. 2, the Utah-based faith unveiled retooled temple ceremonies that removed “sexist” elements while embracing more gender-inclusive language.
“If you ask any faithful feminist what she wanted to change, these hit the entire checklist,” said one delighted woman. “ ... This was not a baby step; it was like a leap forward.”
Another leap followed in April, when the church did an about-face and reversed its controversial 2015 LGBTQ policy, which had labeled same-sex member couples “apostates” and generally barred their children from baptism.
It was Nelson, then the church’s senior apostle, who had declared in January 2016 that the now-abandoned policy came as a revelation from God to his immediate predecessor, Thomas S. Monson, who died in January 2018.
In explaining the unexpected turnaround, Nelson said that the Lord leads the church “revelation upon revelation” and later declared that love was the motivation behind both positions.
“We knew that this policy created concern and confusion for some and heartache for others,” he said in a September speech at Brigham Young University. “ … Whenever the sons and daughters of God weep — for whatever reasons — we weep. So, our supplications to the Lord continued.”
In March, the globe-trotting Nelson, who has visited every continent save Antarctica since taking the church’s helm, became the first Mormon prophet to meet with a Catholic pontiff in a 33-minute audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
“What a sweet, wonderful man he is,” Nelson said of his esteemed host, "and how fortunate the Catholic people are to have such a gracious, concerned, loving and capable leader.”
Other changes during the year: a widened stance on civil weddings, weekly calls home by missionaries, female witnesses at baptisms and temple “sealings,” and a new program for children and youths that will replace the faith’s century-old ties to Scouting.
In mid-December, the church faced stinging criticism from within and without after reports that the faith’s nonprofit investment arm had amassed a $100 billion portfolio from contributions intended — but never spent — for charity. Nelson and his counselors insisted the church “complies with all applicable law governing our donations, investments, taxes and reserves.”
Will the uproar result in another reform: more financial transparency? Hard to say, but Nelson promised way back in 2018 that more changes would come “next year, and then the next year.” So expect additional significant news from 47 E. South Temple in 2020.
Imagine U. — safe
University of Utah President Ruth Watkins had insisted there was no “reason to believe” the 2018 slaying of Lauren McCluskey could have been prevented.
“That statement made me physically ill,” said the student athlete’s mother, Jill McCluskey, pointing to investigations that suggest otherwise.
The McCluskeys filed a $56 million civil rights lawsuit against the U. in June, and pressure continued to build against Watkins, campus police and the school itself throughout the year.
Embattled U. Police Chief Dale Brophy announced his retirement amid the unflattering findings, staff shake-ups and reports of a toxic female-unfriendly culture within the department.
Students walked out, spoke out and demanded more safety reforms and accountability. The school responded by hiring a new safety czar and has selected three finalists to replace Brophy.
In June, another U. student was brutally killed — the third in less than two years — but this time away from campus.
MacKenzie Lueck, a Californian who loved the beach, swimming, animals and her sorority sisters, went missing. For eight days, a headline-grabbing search continued for the 23-year-old kinesiology and prenursing major.
Police then arrested Ayoola Ajayi and days later recovered Lueck’s remains in Logan Canyon after finding charred human tissue in his west Salt Lake City backyard.
Last year, Utah voters spoke loudly (53% of them) for full Medicaid expansion. In February, the Legislature spoke louder (or at least more assertively) for partial expansion. But, in midyear, the federal government spoke even louder (albeit temporarily) in rejecting the lawmakers’ plan. Then, this week, the feds spoke loudest (and, it appears, conclusively) by approving full Medicaid expansion, with work requirements attached for some recipients.
Under a fallback provision in the state’s legislation, a full Medicaid expansion, similar to the one voters initially approved, is now poised to take effect Jan. 1. So, more Utahns — potentially an additional 120,000 adults — earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level will become eligible for this health insurance program.
But the courts may yet have their say. The work caveats, struck down by judges elsewhere, may be challenged in Utah as well. “Work requirements essentially don’t work,” said one advocate. “[They] are a paperwork barrier to the eligible population. … Most people on Medicaid who can work do work.”
Gail Miller’s mic drop
It was the Utah Jazz’s play of the year, more resounding than a run-stopping Rudy Gobert block, more jaw-dropping than a gravity-defying Donovan Mitchell floater, more game-changing than a last-minute Joe Ingles 3-pointer. And it came not from a millionaire player but from the billionaire boss.
Team owner Gail Miller took to the floor March 14 — days after a fan had hurled “excessive and derogatory verbal abuse” at an opposing player — to urge Vivint Smart Home Arena crowds to treat the competition with respect and admonish them that violators will be barred for boorish, bigoted behavior.
Backing up that warning, the Jazz quickly slapped two fans with lifetime bans (one of them sued the team this month, saying he was wrongly accused).
“We are not a racist community,” said Miller, though Jazz fans have a reputation, earned or not, of being not only loud and passionate but also, at times, vile and even prejudiced.
Utahns now have been put on notice to prove otherwise — and Miller proved herself to be The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utahn of the Year.
Inland port pushback
As officials ramped up their work on the Utah Inland Port, detractors amped up their opposition to the massive project — so much so that a July protest erupted into violence in the heart of Salt Lake City, lasting two hours, shutting down traffic, triggering clashes with police, and leading to a number of arrests.
“Abort the port,” protesters shouted as they swarmed the Salt Lake Chamber offices. More than a dozen demonstrators eventually were charged with a range of felonies and misdemeanors, while an internal police review, to the dismay of activists, found “no signs” of excessive or inappropriate use of force by officers.
Critics say the port — pitched as the state’s largest-ever economic development undertaking — will deliver more traffic headaches than shipping remedies, more poor air than industrial riches, more wildlife trauma than human jobs.
Polls showed public support for the port, planned for Salt Lake City’s Northwest Quadrant, going south. Departing Mayor Jackie Biskupski even sued, arguing the state overstepped its bounds and calling the distribution hub “one of the greatest threats” to Utah’s capital.
Housing and the homeless
Now the test begins to see if the proposed answer to the Salt Lake Valley’s homeless problem will work: Are three dispersed resource centers better than one large central shelter? Are 700 beds enough compared to the previous capacity of 1,100? Will the millions being invested in buildings save the thousands on the streets? If the initiative fails, the political, economic and social calculus will have to be reassessed.
For now, though, late 2019 saw The Road Home close downtown and a trio of resource centers open (two in Salt Lake City and one in South Salt Lake) — all of it happening as envisioned, albeit later than originally expected.
The new facilities offer, among other amenities, bright surroundings, multiple daily meals, basic health care, job assistance and housing assessments.
Of course, there is only one surefire solution to homelessness: homes. And area housing has never been pricier and dicier.
The median price for a single-family home in Salt Lake County jumped to a record $380,000-plus in the third quarter. Those dollar signs can make it attractive for occupants to sell — provided they can find a place to buy. All of this has spurred an explosion of apartment building, with cranes filling the cityscape, as would-be homebuyers opt to rent instead.
As for affordable housing, the state has an estimated shortage of about 45,000 dwellings. Tally all of this up, and clearly the state is not home free on the housing front.
Erin Mendenhall’s rise
They made history as the first two female finalists for Salt Lake City mayor after besting better-funded candidates in a crowded primary.
Before the general election, City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall and state Sen. Luz Escamilla debated the inland port, transportation, affordable housing, economic development, climate change, air pollution, homelessness and the longtime gaps and flaps between the city’s east and west sides.
In the end, Mendenhall won in surprisingly convincing fashion, 58% to 42%, and will succeed trailblazing one-term Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who had dropped out before the primary. But, in a wider sense, the real victors may have been voters, who had the privilege of deciding between two qualified, capable, competent candidates who ran hard-fought but civilly conducted and issue-focused campaigns.
With Jenny Wilson stepping in to replace Ben McAdams as Salt Lake County mayor, Utah’s two largest local government entities are headed by women.
No woman, however, holds statewide elected office in Utah.
BYU’s ‘honor’ students
Brigham Young University’s fight song encourages fans to “rise and shout,” so students did just that this year to protest how the school enforces its Honor Code.
In April, about 500 students rallied — a rare sight on the Provo campus — to demand changes. Weary and wary of anonymous accusations, for instance, they want the school, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to live up to its religion by balancing justice with mercy and caring less about punishing students and more about helping them.
Alumni, athletes, boosters and donors joined the cause.
The school’s Honor Code Office, under new leadership, responded with a series of changes:
• Students brought into the office now will know in advance what suspected policy offense they face and be told upfront how the proceedings will take place.
• Students will know the name of their accuser unless that person’s safety might be at risk.
• A second person can attend any disciplinary meetings with a student.
• A presumption of innocence will prevail.
In a related development, the state moved to decertify the BYU Police Department, which has been accused of working too closely with the Honor Code Office, but the unprecedented action remains stalled.
A taxing give-and-take
When does a tax cut not feel like a gift? When the present is wrapped in a string of tax hikes.
That essentially is what the Legislature gave Utahns in a pre-Christmas special session as a result of the Great Tax Debate of 2019.
Lawmakers (Republicans; no Democrats supported it) slashed roughly $630 million from income taxes while boosting sales taxes by $435 million. Result: a $160 million reduction.
Worries abound, especially for schools and shoppers.
Those fatter paychecks and refunds will have to cover higher grocery taxes (the rate is jumping from 1.75% to 4.85%) and levies on other purchases and services.
Education, consistently at or near the top of voters’ chief concerns, loses a large chunk of guaranteed money. Lawmakers expect to revisit that in the next general session by repealing the constitutional income tax earmark for schools and replacing it with a new education funding model that may include automatic annual property tax bumps.
Such a seismic budgetary shift would require voter approval at the ballot box. So the Great Tax Debate of 2020 may determine how it all shakes out.
Beer’s big year
You can add “weak beer” to the made-in-Utah liquor laws (think minibottles, private clubs and “Zion Curtains”) that have gone the way of the dodo.
Starting Nov. 1, grocery and convenience stores — with the Legislature’s blessing — began selling stronger brews (5% alcohol by volume, up from 4% ABV, or 3.2% alcohol by weight).
“Hallelujah!” a Bountiful resident said on that historic day. “It’s been a long wait.”
Try 86 years, since the demise of Prohibition.
Afterward, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage and Control had to destroy 275 cases — 6,600 bottles and cans — of drinkable 5% beer because, by law, it could not sell brews now available from retailers.
Utah also is about to finish its first full year of having the nation’s lowest drunken driving limit after dropping the blood alcohol standard from 0.08 to 0.05 — a move denounced by tourism forces and applauded by safety advocates.
And much more ...
• Salt Lake City emerged as a clear favorite to host another Winter Olympics after winning the backing of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Vaping emerged as a new national threat to public health as thousands landed in hospitals and dozens died, including one in Utah. The state continued to lurch toward implementing its medical marijuana program amid debates about regulation, production and distribution. In a display of bookend benevolence, the Huntsman family began the year by donating $30 million to expand its namesake cancer institute — the first contribution since the death of patriarch Jon Huntsman Sr. but not, his widow vowed, the last — and ended it with a $150 million gift to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. Meanwhile, Paul Huntsman, owner and publisher of The Tribune, announced that the daily had become the first legacy newspaper to gain IRS approval to become a nonprofit, launching an experiment that could extend a lifeline to hard-pressed papers across the nation. University of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham guided his Utes to the cusp of the college football playoffs, and BYU saw the retirement of its winningest basketball coach, Dave Rose. Salt Lake City grappled with an invasion of e-scooters. The trendy two-wheelers may help reduce vehicle traffic, but their prevalence on sidewalks is driving pedestrians and regulators crazy. Teacher salary wars broke out again as school districts — Salt Lake City’s just dodged a strike — battled not just for the best and the brightest but also the willing and the able to work on education’s front lines. Utah also updated its sex education curriculum for the first time in more than 20 years, but the emphasis remains on chastity.
• On the political front, a 35-day federal government shutdown bit into park visits and workers’ wallets. A new Navajo- and Democratic-led County Commission continued to remake southeastern Utah’s San Juan County, reversing, for instance, the previous administration’s opposition to Bears Ears National Monument. Jon Huntsman Jr. left his latest job in hopes of winning back his old one. He stepped down as ambassador to Russia and stepped into the 2020 race for governor, but early polls show he may have to step up to top Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
• On the LGBTQ front, Utah stood poised to become the 19th state to prohibit the widely discredited practice of “conversion therapy,” thanks to an agreement reached by gay rights advocates and LDS Church officials that will bar therapists from trying to alter the sexual orientation of minors. With the church’s blessing, the state also adopted an enhanced hate crimes law. In Utah County, grade schoolers came to the aid of a classmate, who was adopted by two gay dads, when he was being bullied by, of all people, a substitute teacher. And three Utahns made headlines when they came out publicly as gay: Ed Smart, father of kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart and a nationally recognized advocate for child safety; Nathan Ivie, a Utah County commissioner; and BYU graduate Matt Easton, who made the announcement in his valedictory speech.
• On the legends front, Utah lost a civil rights titan with the January death of Latino activist Robert “Archie” Archuleta, remembered as a “rebel to the end,” at age 88. Another champion in the push for racial justice and equality, the Rev. France Davis, a soft-spoken man whose moral clarity resounds across the civic spectrum, is retiring from the pulpit at year’s end after shepherding the state’s most prominent black church for nearly half a century.
• On the crime front, three mothers and six children, many with Utah ties, were mercilessly gunned down in Mexico by drug thugs. Provo police officer Joseph Shinners was killed in shootout with a fugitive. A shooting at Fashion Place mall revived flashbacks to the deadly 2007 Trolley Square rampage. The body of 5-year-old Lizzy Shelley was found and her uncle sentenced to life in prison for her slaying. Former Utah State University football star Torrey Green was sent to prison as a “serial rapist,” Latter-day Saint filmmaker Sterling Van Wagenen was locked up as a child molester, and real estate investor Rick Koerber was sentenced as a fraudster. Four Utahns with ties to the polygamous Kingston Group pleaded guilty to what the feds called a $511 million biofuel fraud involving Washakie Renewable Energy. And, after more than three decades on death row, infamous killer Ron Lafferty died in prison at age 78 before he could face execution. There are now seven inmates on Utah’s death row.
• Finally, in a series of firsts and lasts, Provo is getting its inaugural stand-alone Starbucks, Solitude became the state’s first ski resort to charge for parking, Utah’s fertility rate fell below the “replacement rate” for the first time, Manti staged its final Mormon Miracle Pageant after a 52-year run, Winder Dairy made its last home deliveries, and Kennecott Utah Copper will close its last coal-fired power plant.
Editor’s note • Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is a brother of Tribune Publisher Paul Huntsman.