Robert Gehrke: These are the stories that shaped a decade of Utah politics

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) U.S. President Donald Trump, surrounded by Utah representatives looks at Sen. Orrin Hatch to give him the pen used to signs a presidential proclamation to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017.

Imagine stepping out of a time machine on Jan. 1, 2010, and telling an average Utahn what would transpire over the next 10 years.

Medical marijuana will be legal, same-sex couples will be getting married, voters will have forced the state to accept Obamacare, Orrin Hatch won’t be a senator anymore, and Donald Trump will be president. Yeah, the guy from the TV show.

You’d be locked up.

But that’s just a sampling of what transpired. Here is a look at the stories and people that shaped the state’s politics and our lives over the past decade.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Davis Cromar, center, holds his son Holden, 10, who suffers from epilepsy, while standing with other patients, caregivers and supporters during the Utah Patients Coalition news conference, in Salt Lake City on June 26, 2017.

Power to the people

Since statehood, Utah’s Constitution has said: “All political power is inherent in the people.” In 2018, Utahns showed that like never before.

Only four times in state history had voters overcome the daunting obstacles to put an initiative on the ballot (twice they had used a referendum to repeal a law).

But in 2018, three measures qualified for the ballot, all addressing issues that, despite widespread public support, the Legislature had refused to act upon — Proposition 2 sought to legalize medical marijuana; Prop 3 sought to expand Medicaid eligibility to tens of thousands of low-income Utahns; and Prop 4 sought to create an independent commission to recommend new, nonpartisan legislative boundaries.

Massive turnout for a non-presidential election helped all three to victory, only to see the Legislature step in to tinker with medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion.

Despite legislative meddling, the state has issued a series of licenses to grow medical marijuana, is in the process of setting up a system of dispensaries and patients with qualifying illnesses can now use cannabis without risking state prosecution. And, as of Jan. 1, tens of thousands of low-income Utahns who couldn’t qualify before will be eligible for coverage under Medicaid.

(Brennan Linsley | AP file photo) Plaintiffs and gay rights activists Derek Kitchen, left, and his partner Moudi Sbeity embrace as they leave court with other gay rights supporters after a hearing at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Thursday, April 10, 2014.

Love is love

Back in 2004, Utah voters overwhelmingly adopted Amendment 3 to the state Constitution banning marriage between same-sex couples. That provision stood unchallenged until March 2013, when three couples filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the ban violates the U.S. Constitution.

That December, District Judge Robert Shelby ruled that such bans “demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason,” striking down the prohibition.

That night, couples were lining up to wed. Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker officiated impromptu ceremonies, while Gov. Gary Herbert decried the “activist federal judge” who struck down the ban.

The state appealed the ruling, the appeals court upheld the decision and in October of 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, assuring same-sex couples could legally marry in Utah.

As of 2018 there were an estimated 4,182 married same-sex couples in Utah.

It was one of several victories for the LGBTQ Utahns in the decade, including passage of a law banning housing or employment discrimination based on sexual orientation; the 2019 passage of a functional hate crimes law; and a rule taking effect this month banning conversion therapy, intended to change a child’s sexual orientation.

(Katherine Frey | The Washington Post) Cave Canyon Towers is the best preserved of the seven Pueblo ruins that line the canyon and date to the 13th century.

Monumental strife

In 2015, after years of failed legislative efforts, five Native American tribes formally asked President Barack Obama to use his authority to designate a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in Southeastern Utah to protect their ancestral lands.

After Rep. Rob Bishop’s attempt to deal with the issue crumbled and Trump was elected, Obama announced the designation of an 1.35-million-acre monument in December 2016, just before leaving office.

Utah politicians were outraged, calling it a “midnight monument,” one that Herbert said “runs roughshod” over the will of the Utah people.

The following April, Trump ordered a review of all major monument designations and said Bears Ears, specifically “should never have happened.” In December, Trump came to the Utah Capitol to sign an order shrinking Bears Ears from 1.35 million acres to a little over 200,000 acres and slashing the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designated by President Bill Clinton, from 1.9 million acres to 1 million.

The move was immediately challenged in court by the tribes and environmental groups. Those lawsuits are pending in federal court, which will likely rule next year. Appeals are expected regardless of the outcome. In the meantime, much of the land remains less protected.

FILE - In this July 30, 2014, file photo, former Utah Attorney General John Swallow arrives at court in Salt Lake City. The Utah Legislature has formally approved a settlement with Swallow after he was acquitted of bribery. The $1.5 million settlement was agreed upon in a special session Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, to reimburse the former attorney general for his legal fees. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

The Shurtleff-Swallow saga

Days after John Swallow was inaugurated as Utah’s attorney general in 2013, news broke of an alleged shakedown, in which Swallow was accused of arranging a $600,000 payment to help a friend, Jeremy Johnson, derail a federal investigation into his business. Johnson was armed with a surreptitiously recorded tape of a meeting at an Orem Krispy Kreme where they discussed the deal.

Subsequently, another man, Marc Sessions Jenson, accused Swallow and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff, of extorting gifts and favors while Jenson was free from prison and under the supervision of the Attorney General’s Office.

Both Shurtleff and Swallow denied wrongdoing. The allegations prompted investigations by the FBI and the state Bureau of Investigation. The Lieutenant Governor’s Office investigated whether Swallow had violated election law and the Utah House of Representatives launched its own probe that could have laid the groundwork for impeachment.

Swallow resigned from office in November of that year, maintaining his innocence.

A month later, House investigators released a report alleging that, after the Krispy Kreme meeting, Swallow had engaged in a spree of evidence destruction and created documents to cover his trail and that Swallow had, in essence, put a “For Sale” sign on the door of the Attorney General’s Office for campaign donors.

In July 2014, Swallow and Shurtleff were arrested and charged with multiple felonies. But in 2016, Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings dropped the charges against Shurtleff, saying a recent Supreme Court ruling and the federal government’s refusal to turn over information prompted the dismissal.

Swallow’s case went to trial and in March 2017 he was acquitted. In September 2019, the state agreed to pay $1.5 million to Swallow and $600,000 to Shurtleff to compensate for their legal expenses.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, right, listens as emergency room physician Christian Neff, M.D., spoke in support of the "Count My Vote" effort at a press conference held on the south steps of the State Capitol building, Wednesday, September 18, 2013.

Rise of the right and the reaction

On the brink of a financial crisis, Congress in 2009 took urgent action to avert full-scale collapse. The bank bailout didn’t sit well among conservative Republicans and spawned “tea party” movements nationwide. Mike Lee harnessed the boiling furor, helping to oust Sen. Bob Bennett and become the state’s newest senator.

But the movement brought a backlash. Establishment Republicans began to view the convention system as skewed to favor fringe candidates and a poor representation of the Utah electorate. Former Gov. Mike Leavitt led a group of Republicans to form Count My Vote, seeking an alternative to circumvent the convention.

Legislators struck a deal with Count My Vote in 2014 and passed SB54, letting candidates get on the ballot through the convention, by gathering signatures, or both.

The bill spawned years of legal challenges, as convention proponents fought to maintain control of the process. They lost nearly every step of the way.

In several high profile races over the past several years, convention delegates chose one candidate, only to have Republican primary voters go a different direction. Most notable was U.S. Rep. John Curtis, who finished fifth at the party convention, but easily won a three-way primary in a 2017 special election.

The Count My Vote movement and SB54 left party conventions mostly meaningless, giving the decision-making power to a larger pool of primary voters.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) In this May 23, 2017, file photo, construction continues on new buildings in Vineyard. New state population estimates show Utah is continuing to grow, but demographers say it isn't just the state's well-known high birth rate that's driving the increase that made it the country's fastest-growing state.

Bursting at the seams

As we entered the decade, fewer than 2.8 million people called Utah home. Today, that number is estimated to be in excess of 3.2 million, making it one of the fastest-growing states in the nation.

The impacts are evident in every aspect of our lives. Short supply has driven housing prices up by 73% and exacerbated a homeless crisis. Construction demands have driven prices higher and higher.

Suburban sprawl and resistance to higher density has created conflicts in what had previously been undeveloped exurbs. Transportation officials have felt the strain of keeping pace with the demands. Water has become a precious and limiting commodity. And air quality, while it has improved, remains problematic.

On its current pace, Utah’s population is projected to be approaching 4 million people by the end of the decade, with all of the accompanying stress and demands.

(Andrew Harnik | AP) Vice President Mike Pence shakes hands with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, accompanied by his wife Ann, following a mock swearing in ceremony in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, as the 116th Congress begins.

Mitt happens

The Utah political decade was bookended by a figure that wasn’t born here, but made it his home.

After losing the 2008 Republican nomination, Mitt Romney announced in the summer of 2011 he would take another shot at the presidency and by the following May he had locked up the GOP nomination.

His candidacy energized Utah Republicans. Romney won 93% of the vote in Utah’s presidential primary, donors from the state poured $9 million into his campaign, and volunteers traveled across the country to spread the word in key states. Romney’s faith also put a spotlight on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Romney won Utah — no real surprise — but lost nine out of 10 battleground states and the election to Obama.

After the defeat, Romney went back to being a grandpa. In 2015, he fought a charity boxing match with Evander Holyfield. In 2016, he issued a scathing condemnation of candidate Trump, calling him “a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” It didn’t matter. Trump won and the president-elect publicly courted — or taunted — Romney with a potential secretary of state post.

About a year later, a retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch recruited Romney to replace him in the U.S. Senate and he won resounding victories in a GOP primary and the November general election. As senator, Romney has walked a fine line, supporting the president on some issues while being a leading critic on others, such as the president’s withdrawal from Syria and withholding of aid to Ukraine. He also used his fake Twitter persona — Pierre Delecto — to “like” tweets critical of Trump.

FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2018, file photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Utah governor Gary Herbert has signed a sweeping overhaul of the state's tax system that lowers income tax while increasing taxes on food, fuel and several services. The Salt Lake Tribune reports Herbert defended the bill that cuts taxes by a net total of $160 million during his monthly news conference at PBS Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

A decade of Gary Herbert

The third governor to be elected three times and the first to hold office at the open and close of a decade — Gov. Gary Herbert left his mark on the state.

Inheriting the office when Jon Huntsman left to be U.S. Ambassador to China in the depths of the recession, Herbert rode a raging recovery and rapid economic expansion through most of the rest of the decade.

It meant more than $1 billion of new funding for education in five years. Unemployment has fallen from 6.8% in January 2010 to a miniscule 2.5%. He oversaw the sprouting of the silicon slopes, and won three consecutive landslides — despite being forced to a primary in 2016.

Herbert shrunk state government — the state has fewer full-time employees at the close of the decade than at the beginning, supported reforms of the state’s criminal justice system, and urged the Legislature to overhaul the tax system (signing the bill passed by the Legislature last month).

He fought for his Healthy Utah plan to expand Medicaid, a fight he lost to the Legislature, only to have basically the same plan enacted to start the new decade. He urged caution on medical marijuana legalization, resisted same-sex marriage, fought against Obama’s monument designation, and backed the inland port. And by offering to give donors to his campaign special meetings, he introduced a new generation to the Li’l Abner comic strip character, “Available Jones.”

He has been criticized for being a manager more than visionary, but during his tenure Utah was repeatedly named among the best managed states and the best states to do business.

Other major stories of the decade:

Back and 4th: The 4th Congressional district changed hands from Democrat to Republican and back in just four elections. Rep. Mia Love was the only person to win the district twice. She also lost it twice, both times by fewer than 800 votes.

Hatch hangs it up: After 42 years in office, Sen. Orrin Hatch finally retired from the Senate, the sixth-longest serving senator ever and the longest-serving among Republicans.

West Side Story: Salt Lake City’s west side saw a trio of massive and at times controversial projects — the new state prison, a $3.6 billion airport renovation, and the lightning rod inland port.