When all the ballots are counted, Utah will have its second female lieutenant governor.
It could be Karina Brown, a Medicaid expansion advocate, who is running with University of Utah professor Chris Peterson on the Democratic ticket. Or Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, who is running alongside Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox as the Republican candidates.
The Salt Lake Tribune recently interviewed Henderson and Brown over Zoom for supporters of the paper’s Report for America positions, talking about the coronavirus, police reform, abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment and Utah’s poor reputation for women.
When asked how she thought Utah leaders have generally handled COVID-19, Brown said, “Gov. [Gary] Herbert has done a great job with the weekly updates involving Angela Dunn,” the state epidemiologist, and in “giving the counties authority to issue mask mandates.”
Brown is “concerned,” though, about “large sums of taxpayer funds that have gone to no-bid contracts and millions spent on a contract tracing app that wasn’t as effective as it should be”; the closure of some low-income clinics during the pandemic; and state legislators voting to ease the public health credentials required for the state’s Health Department leader.
“I think the state could’ve done a better job of communicating with educators months ago to prepare for school opening ... and had a statewide mask mandate for a limited time to reduce the case count so that the educators and the families wouldn’t be so stressed out about going back to school,” Brown said.
Henderson said, “I think that Utah leaders, overall, have done a really good job of trying to not be too heavy handed, but at the same time, making sure that people understand that this is really serious. And there’s been a balance between protecting the public health and protecting economic health."
She pointed to Utah’s declining unemployment rate and the state’s comparatively low death rate from the virus.
“We don’t want to see anyone die from this, certainly,” she said. “At the same time, I think we’ve threaded the needle pretty well up until now, and, obviously, if we want to do things like have kids back in school and have our universities opened, then we’re going to have to do things like make sure people are wearing masks.”
The Tribune interviewed the candidates at different points during the pandemic. Brown’s interview took place Aug. 26, when Utah averaged 550 new diagnoses each day. Henderson was interviewed Sept. 21, just after Utah experienced a spike and surpassed 1,000 new cases in a single day for the first time. (The Tribune originally planned to interview Henderson in late August but postponed it as the senator was recovering from COVID-19.)
After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May, protests and calls for police reform spread across the country. Shortly after, Utah lawmakers banned police from using knee-on-neck chokeholds.
When asked what additional reforms Utahns should work on, both Brown and Henderson said they support de-escalation training for law enforcement.
“There’s talk of defunding police, and I just fundamentally disagree with that. I think that we need to actually increase funding for officers, for training, for salaries,” Henderson said, in order to attract “the highest quality, highest caliber of people.”
Brown said she supports implicit bias training and more education requirements for officers, in addition to the police academy. If there are cases of officer misconduct, that information is “important to share,” including if they transfer to another department or area, Brown said.
Brown and Henderson said there also needs be more funding for social services.
“Many of the calls that law enforcement go to are domestic-related or mental health calls, which I think is very sad. I think we’re putting too much work on law enforcement,” Brown said.
Henderson said she would also work with the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs on “making sure we have equity in opportunity, seeing where some of those holes are, and mitigating those problems, and looking for ways to fix some of the systemic racism that is in our system, in our government."
“I was the Senate sponsor of that bill. So, yes, I do agree with that, and I’m very pro-life,” Henderson said.
Henderson and her five fellow female senators made national news in March when they spontaneously walked out in protest of a bill that would have required women to undergo an ultrasound and be presented with video and audio of their developing fetus before terminating a pregnancy.
“When I read that story ... I felt emotional because it was a bipartisan effort,” Brown said. “The women who walked out were both Republicans and Democrats. So, it shows the bond between women” in reaction “to government overreach in that bill.”
Henderson successfully amended the legislation to prohibit the use of transvaginal ultrasounds under the bill, a more invasive procedure than transabdominal ultrasounds.
“What was so frustrating about that bill was we could see very quickly that the bill requiring a woman to have a medical procedure done, it went way beyond what the government should ever be doing,” Henderson said.
Some of her colleagues didn’t understand what the procedure would entail, “so we were pulling up pictures of transvaginal ultrasound wands to show to our colleagues and say, ‘Look, this is like, you know, government-mandated object rape. This is not OK. This is not something the government should be doing, even if we’re pro-life, even if we believe that women shouldn’t be having elective abortions,’” Henderson said.
Equal Rights Amendment
Henderson and Brown agree that Utah should ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
“I personally think that the ERA should have been ratified decades ago,” Henderson said.
She added that “there are some concerns ... that are going to be need to be addressed” before doing that, though. The ERA, which was first proposed in the 1920s, passed the U.S. Senate and House in 1972, and in January, Virginia became the 38th and final state needed to add it to the U.S. Constitution. But advocates expect legal challenges ahead, including over five states that have voted to rescind their ratification.
“If it needs to start all over again, I think that that’s fine, and it’s something that Utah should be involved in,” Henderson said.
Brown said, “We already have language in the state constitution in support of women’s equality, but it would be an important step at the national level for Utah to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.”
Status of Utah women
“The ranking shows us that, unfortunately, we have a lot of room for improvement, and that is something that I am passionate about,” Henderson said.
Utah regularly has one of the worst gender wage gaps in the country, and Henderson said she and Cox “are both committed to taking a really comprehensive look at the root causes of the wage gap,” especially for women of color.
Women tend to work in lower-paying fields and start out at a lower pay than their male counterparts. Using previous salary to set a woman’s pay at a new job can perpetuate wage gaps, according to experts. Prohibiting employers from relying on an applicant’s wage history would be “an easy start” to address the issue, Henderson said.
“We can definitely mandate that for state employees. We can definitely mandate that, I think, for businesses that seek economic incentives from the state,” she said.
When Brown saw Utah’s low ranking, “I felt really disheartened and frustrated and angry. ... But I think Utah can do better,” she said.
Brown said she supports recommendations released in July by Utah’s advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for steps the state Legislature can take to close the gap. Those include raising the minimum wage, providing mandatory paid parental leave, eliminating pay secrecy and studying the extent of the gap.
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.