Democratic state Sen. Derek Kitchen told attendees of a 90-minute debate Wednesday night that he is seeking another term on Capitol Hill because representation matters, and he better reflects Utah’s young population than his 51-year-old challenger, Jennifer Plumb.
The 33-year-old Kitchen said as the only millennial in the upper chamber and the only openly queer lawmaker in the Legislature, he offers a perspective that more closely aligns with the makeup of what is now Senate District 9.
“I represent you because I am you,” he said. “I know what it’s like to rent in this community. We know what it’s like to breathe bad air. We know what it’s like to have our dignity challenged, our existence ignored.”
If Kitchen wants to serve a second term in Utah’s most liberal Senate district, he first needs to beat Plumb in the June 28 primary. She came within 550 votes of besting him in the 2018 Democratic runoff.
For her part, Plumb didn’t respond to Kitchen’s comment about age directly during the debate, but said in an interview that the remarks are “almost ageist” and that she would not judge people based on the demographic they represent.
She instead turned her debate attention to Kitchen’s work as a senator.
“We need to advocate for change,” Plumb said. “This district for 10 years has not had many results delivered.”
Plumb, a pediatric emergency department doctor and opioid mitigation advocate, said she has a track record of working with lawmakers as an outsider to steer progressive causes like syringe exchanges and naloxone access into law.
“I have demonstrated I know how to navigate those often shark-infested waters,” she said, “because the results matter too much not to.”
Kitchen, a small-business owner, said he wants another term because the district needs a representative who is willing to fight the Republican supermajority in the Legislature with urgency. He said his task is to advance a Democratic agenda, insisting he has done that with bills.
“My job is to put forward legislation that this community desires,” Kitchen said. “If the Republicans choose not to support it, that’s on them.”
Plumb said she and Kitchen may agree on many principles and policy views, but they differ in their approach to lawmaking.
“I don’t think it’s OK,” she said, “not to both represent, as well as deliver, for your constituents.”
One issue where Kitchen and Plumb diverge on policy approaches is with addressing homelessness in Salt Lake City.
Kitchen wants to focus on funding the “housing first” model. By providing housing, he said, solutions to other problems faced by unsheltered residents start to fall into place.
Plumb countered it’s not enough to zero in just on housing. The state, she said, must ramp up services and outreach programs with teams of social workers and those who treat substance-use disorders.
On air quality, Kitchen advocates a carbon tax to pay for free public transit and reduce emissions by updating building codes.
Plumb said Democrats need to work their way up to big legislation like carbon taxes, starting with small goals like electrical grid updates or making it more economical to own an electric vehicle.
“If we go in too strongly with our liberal agenda, which we’re constantly accused of having, the conversation ends,” Plumb said. “Bills don’t get out of [the] rules [committee].”
Making incremental progress isn’t sufficient when it comes to addressing issues like air quality or access to water, Kitchen said. “We have to take action today.”
To save the shrinking Great Salt Lake, he said, Democrats must call out Republicans on policy decisions — like building a Bear River Dam — that would harm the imperiled body of water.
Kitchen said the state should optimize its agriculture, move quickly toward secondary water metering, and stop growing alfalfa that gets shipped overseas.
Plumb defended her approach to collaborating on policy by saying it is the only way to make progress.
To address Utah’s water needs, Plumb said the state needs to work on water optimization in agricultural and urban areas, followed by hard conversations about crop choices. To get there, she said, urban and rural parts of the state must build better relationships.
Salt Lake County will begin mailing ballots next week. The winner of the Senate District 9 primary race will face nonpartisan write-in candidate Vance Hansen in November.