Robert Gehrke: Here’s a group of Utahns who could achieve important things in 2020

Robert Gehrke

Over the past few years, I’ve started the year assembling a list of the 25 most influential Utahns in politics.

The thing is, the list doesn’t change that much. Shuffle a few around, swap one mayor or legislator for another, and there you have it. The good news, for me, is that it’s easy. The bad news is it’s stale.

So this year, I’m switching it up. I want to highlight a few people — some you may not know, some you probably do — who will shape our state in the coming year. These are people who are worth watching in 2020.

• Of course Salt Lake City Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall will be on everyone’s radar. She has laid out an ambitious agenda, topped by air quality, and she is laying the transition groundwork so she can have a quick start in January.

But she’s an obvious pick. Behind the scenes, it will be Rachel Otto, the new mayor’s chief of staff, who will be working to implement the mayor’s vision and trying to keep things running smoothly. She’s an encouraging pick. Here’s why: Otto isn’t a creature of City Hall and she wasn’t part of Mendenhall’s campaign team. Until she got the job, she was a policy expert at the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

| Courtesy Photo Rachel Otto

That means she comes to the job without political baggage or favors owed. She’s got policy chops, a trove of knowledge and national perspective on what makes successful cities hum, and she has insight into the Utah Legislature that will help her boss navigate those choppy waters.

• Rep. Craig Hall has held onto one of the few really contested House districts in the state, and he’s done it by being a centrist. In the process, he has carried a remarkable number of substantive bills.

Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City confers with Judiciary chair Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, during the House Judiciary Committee meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. Hall watched lawmakers dismantle his bill to end conversion therapy and replace it with an alternative that he says would do nothing to stop the widely-discredited practice. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Last session the Republican from West Valley City worked with Equality Utah and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to come up with a bill to ban conversion therapy that both sides could live with — only to have its legs cut out from under it by a last-second blitz from conservatives. Ultimately, the contours of his bill were put into an administrative rule that will ban the practice starting next month.

On top of that, other bills he got enacted as law do the following: Require police to get a warrant for digital information (the first such requirement in the country); let candidates use campaign funds for child care while they’re running, a move intended to encourage more women to file for office; close a loophole that let Unified Fire Chief Michael Jensen off the hook when he misused public money; require police to get a warrant for a blood draw, passed after a University of Utah nurse was arrested for refusing; and prohibit a government employee from hiring “a household member,” passed after the sad saga involving the late Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott.

This year, he is proposing to ban straight-party voting and overhauling Utah’s retirement system — plus we’ll watch to see what else he comes up with.

• Over the past few sessions, Rep. Steve Eliason has taken a laser-like focus to a problem that plagues Utah: Suicide.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, holds a gun safe as he speaks to members of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Standing Committee at the Utah State Capitol Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers discussed a number of gun-control proposals, including requirements to store them safely and liability if a loaned weapon is used in a crime. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The Cottonwood Heights Republican has passed legislation to expand mental health treatment, encourage safe gun storage and gun locks, fund mental health counselors in schools, require suicide prevention training for primary care doctors, provide access to tele-health counseling for rural areas, and add to the number of psychiatrist spaces in the U. program. And that’s not all of them.

Recent data showed Utah’s suicide rate declined for the first time in a decade, although it remains to be seen if it is a blip or a trend.

This session, Eliason is working on legislation to infuse a significant amount of money into the state’s mental health treatment and expand how services are provided.

• In 2016, Suzanne Harrison ran for office for the first time, worked her tail off against an incumbent legislator in a Republican-leaning district and, the payoff? She lost by three votes. But she was back two years later and won the Sandy seat.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah State House Democratic candidate Suzanne Harrison speaks during a panel discussion at the Hinckley Institute, during a discussion on how religion and politics mix, Monday, October 3, 2016.

That’s the same formula she has brought to being a legislator. She’s smart, works like crazy and is a moderate who has won the respect of her Republican colleagues. Entering her second session, she has laid out plans to tackle health care spending, campaign finance and a bill aimed at incentivizing companies moving to the state to offer child care.

Beyond the session, Harrison has high upside. She is the prototype of the kind of candidate Democrats could run countywide, for Congress or even statewide.

• What do we make of Sen. Mike Lee? At his best, his libertarian-oriented conservatism has driven him to help pass bills like the First Step Act, which began the overhaul of the nation’s broken criminal justice system and is probably the most important piece of legislation President Donald Trump has signed into law.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mike Lee speaks to republican supporters during a news conference with Second Lady Karen Pence at the Utah Sate Capitol, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019.

At his worst, he blocks legislation to fund compensation payments for 9/11 first responders. So which one will show up in 2020? Probably some of both and unfortunately, I suspect, more of the latter.

But he is Utah’s senior senator and along with — perhaps to a lesser extent — Rep. Chris Stewart, he has more pull with the White House than anyone in the delegation. So from that perspective, Lee will be the member of the delegation best-positioned to get things done in 2020. That makes him worth watching, or at least worth keeping an eye on.

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