Ben McAdams, the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake County, announced he is running for Utah’s 4th Congressional District, teeing up a 2018 challenge against two-term Republican Rep. Mia Love.
McAdams, a former state senator who was re-elected to his second term as mayor of the state’s largest county in 2016, is known as one of the state’s most politically popular and ambitious Democrats. His name for years has been included in possible candidate lists for U.S. Senate and for governor.
He told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday he’d zeroed in on the House seat because Congress and the federal government have created roadblocks to solving issues Utahns face.
“I would hope that our representatives in Washington rolled up their sleeves and knew what was going on and knew what our challenges were and how they could help to solve our challenges,” he said. “Instead it feels like they’re just enamored with the national spotlight and partisan games that both parties seem to play.”
McAdams lives about a block outside the 4th District, but as mayor he represents about 85 percent of the voters in the district. Because he was re-elected last year, McAdams won’t have to give up his position to run.
As mayor, McAdams has been involved in some of the region’s highest-profile issues. He led a committee that studies how to reform homeless services as the county has spent years grappling with how it can improve services and prevent homelessness.
The issue has proved politically challenging as well. A state law required McAdams to pick a location for a new homeless shelter before the state closes a 1,100-bed shelter downtown and build three smaller ones throughout the county. McAdams picked South Salt Lake, which is in the 4th District, sparking a battle with that city’s mayor and upsetting residents near the shelter.
“My approach has been to dive in and to make the decisions that we need to make to move forward,” he said. “That was a tough process, and I guess we’ll see what people think about that. But I hope people will see that I was faced with some tough challenges that we were trying to solve.”
During a 20-minute conversation, McAdams said Wednesday he was willing to work with anyone to get things done — including President Donald Trump, whom McAdams also called “overly divisive.”
“I would like to see leaders who bring us together rather than divide us,” McAdams said of Trump. “But that won’t stop me from working to find common ground and bring solutions back to Utah.”
He pointed to the state’s request to expand Medicaid to cover very low-income residents. The expansion is considered crucial to the state’s effort to cover drug treatment under the ongoing Operation Rio Grande. The state is awaiting approval from the federal government.
“We’re waiting for federal approval and we’ve been waiting for federal approval for two years now,” he said. “We cannot get the federal government to take action.”
McAdams’ first choice was a much larger expansion of Medicaid to cover far more Utahns. But when the state showed it wasn’t willing to take on the higher costs of the federal insurance coverage under Medicaid, McAdams says he worked with Republican House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, to get something through the Legislature that could pass.
Meanwhile, he said, Congress has failed to pass legislation that would fund health coverage for low-income children, including 20,000 in Utah, before funding runs out at year’s end.
“I’m optimistic that they’ll find a path forward on CHIP [the Children’s Health Insurance Program]. But, in the meantime, it’s posturing and games,” McAdams said. “Real people on the ground are suffering.”
Bring it on, says a Love campaign strategist.
“The simple fact is if he runs, he’ll lose,” said Dave Hansen, Love’s campaign adviser. “[Love] has done an excellent job. She’s represented the district very well. She represents the viewpoint and the desires of the voters in the district.”
Love, the first black Republican woman elected to the U.S. House, first ran in 2012, losing narrowly to Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson in the newly drawn 4th District. Matheson retired in 2014 and Love defeated Doug Owens in back-to-back showdowns, in 2014 and 2016.
The other declared candidates hoping for a chance to face Love on the ballot next year are Democrats Darlene McDonald, Marla Mott-Smith and Tom Taylor.
McAdams is uniquely positioned for a challenge given his high visibility in the county, his experience and his ability to mount a campaign close to his home, said Tim Chambless, an associate political science professor at the University of Utah.
“If he can just do fairly well in the other three, more rural counties, campaign well in the highly suburban parts of Salt Lake County,” Chambless said, “he can win.”
McAdams said he expects the campaign will cost about $2.5 million and that he plans to run a positive campaign but expects plenty of outside money that typically funds negative ad campaigns.
“We sat down with our kids and we told them that we expect that this will be ugly. There will be a lot of negativity. And that does give me pause,” he said. “Ultimately, the moment that good people are bullied out of running for office because of fear of the negativity, then Washington really is lost.
“I decided that I believe in the good, human nature of Utahns. That people know me,” he said. “I care about Utah and that’s why I’m doing this.”
Editor’s note: This story has been modified from the original to name declared Democratic candidates in the 4th Congressional District that were omitted in the earlier version.