Utah Rep. Ben McAdams still finds optimism in Washington after a polarizing first year

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben McAdams leaves with his wife Julie, after announcing that he will vote yes, on the House impeachment vote, during news conference at Murray City Hall, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.

Washington • Rep. Ben McAdams found his first year in Congress to be rather discouraging, in that the place is as dysfunctional as it appears. But he says he still found some early successes — even as he enters the 2020 election year as a top target of the Republicans.

The Utah Democrat arrived in Washington this past January, joining a House that is bitterly partisan and in a year that ended with a nearly party-line vote to impeach President Donald Trump.

“I’ve been disappointed to discover that in many ways it is every bit as partisan on the inside as it looks on the outside,” McAdams said in an interview, looking back at his tenure so far. “And that’s frustrating to me.”

Even so, McAdams said there were a few bright spots — he helped halt a pay raise for members of Congress as well as join with fellow, like-minded Democrats to urge his party toward the center.

“I’m an optimist,” McAdams said. “I don’t think you can run for office as a Democrat in Utah without being an optimist. And, you know, I went to Washington to try and build relationships on both sides of the aisle. And I’ve done that.”

McAdams, a former Salt Lake County mayor who eked out a razor-thin victory in the 4th District to become the only Democrat representing Utah, said he’s tried to avoid blind partisanship as he approached the job, including breaking with his party and casting one of his first votes against Nancy Pelosi of California for speaker.

“And I stand by that,” McAdams said. “I think turnover is a good thing. And I wanted to see new leadership in Congress. And so I cast that vote against the party. And then I will continue to ruffle feathers with the party.”

[Read a look back on Sen. Mitt Romney’s first year in office.]

In June, McAdams frustrated leaders of both parties when he joined with fellow Blue Dog Democrats to push back on a $4,500 annual pay raise for members of Congress (members make $174,500). And that same group helped gain House passage of a measure for humanitarian aid at the U.S.-Mexican border, when Democrats were advocating to negotiate a deal more to their liking.

“I’ve developed some good relationships with Republicans, and every piece of legislation I’ve introduced has a Republican co-sponsor,” McAdams said. “And I think those relationships will serve Utah well. And I want to be part of fixing a broken Washington. And I think in order to do that, we’ve got to learn to come together and work together.”

Sometimes that’s easier said than done.

‘I will vote yes’

McAdams was one of scores of Democrats who weren’t initially supportive of efforts to impeach Trump. In fact, the Utah Democrat didn’t back the inquiry into the president’s actions with Ukraine for about a week after it was announced by Pelosi. And when he announced his support, he first read the “wrong statement" at a Midvale Senior Center, before clarifying his stance. When he did finally say he supported the inquiry, he got harangued by a group of seniors who wanted him to say he supported outright impeachment.

In the end, that’s what he did. McAdams said he could not “turn a blind eye” to the president’s actions or that of his future successors.

The evidence for me is clear: The president abused the power of his office by demanding a foreign government perform a personal favor. He obstructed Congress and its constitutional duty of oversight by withholding certain documents and central witnesses,” McAdams said before the December vote on two articles of impeachment.

Only two Democrats voted against the abuse-of-power charge and three against obstruction of Congress — including one who later switched to the Republican Party.

It was a vote that may come with political repercussions — Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager pronounced McAdams’ political career “over” — though the first-term congressman said he was at peace with his decision, noting that the GOP-led Senate isn’t likely to remove Trump from office and the president’s future will be in the hands of voters.

While Utah is a Republican-dominated state, it isn’t Trump territory. The president garnered less than half the state’s vote in 2016 and in McAdams’ district, Trump earned less than 40%.

But the Republican Party is targeting McAdams in a bid to bring the seat back to its side — and several candidates have emerged, including former Davis County GOP official Kathleen Anderson, state Rep. Kim Coleman, former radio host Jay McFarland and Chris Biesinger, a nurse practitioner. Burgess Owens, an author and former NFL player, has announced his candidacy but has not officially filed.

The GOP’s top pick to take on McAdams, state Sen. Dan Hemmert, had raised more than $400,000 toward his bid and earned the support of the National Republican Congressional Committee. But Hemmert said he was dropping out of the race in December to focus on his chain of dry cleaning businesses

McAdams also faces a challenge from the left by Daniel Beckstrand, a self-described progressive who called McAdams “Republican lite.”

Bills passed and others in the works

McAdams had promised to hold multiple town halls when he ran against then-Rep. Mia Love, a Republican who had shied away from those public meetings.

“I held a town hall meeting in every county in my district within the first 90 days,” McAdams said, noting a total of 27 such meetings in his first year.

A lot of this is being accessible and open to the public,” McAdams said.

The freshman also touts other accomplishments:

• Supporting a U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal that he says will help with more than 120,000 Utah jobs.

• Introduction of the Investor Protection and Capital Markets Fairness Act (passed by the House, awaiting Senate action).

• Launching of the What Works Caucus with Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., to promote federal, evidence-based legislation that addresses big challenges.

• Supporting legislation to raise the age to buy tobacco products to 21.

• Increasing funding for the Central Utah Project, a massive water project.

Overall, McAdams says his best success was forging bonds with others and finding ways to work together.

“Even in the midst of the hyper partisanship of Washington, it’s important to try and have those relationships that can start healing,” McAdams said. “At some point, we need to decide as a country that there is more. We’re all on the same team. There’s more that unites us than divides us. And we’re going to work together for the good of the country.”