Utah’s female lawmakers of color celebrate policy progress, detail threats and challenges of public office in panel discussion

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, speaks at a Black Lives Matter protest at City Hall Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

As the coronavirus has battered Utah’s communities of color, and after a summer of nationwide protests spurred by police violence against people of color, Sen. Luz Escamilla said Thursday that she’s “never seen more unity” among the state’s minority lawmakers.

“We made a decision and it probably was like 9 p.m. on a Saturday that we were in a Zoom meeting. We were all in quarantine. And we said, ‘We’re not going to take it,’” Escamilla recounted during a virtual panel with the state’s female lawmakers of color on Thursday evening. “'We’re going to push forward.'”

The Salt Lake City Democrat said the bills that have come out addressing police violence — including a measure that passed in a special session this summer banning police from using knee-on-neck chokeholds like the one used on George Floyd — as well as the COVID-19 programs that have been created for the state’s ethnic minority populations are a direct result of that work.

“It happened because we were pushing like never before,” she said, noting that it had also come amid “real pushback” from other lawmakers, including from some within her own party.

During the sweeping hour and a half Zoom panel, which was organized by Westminster College’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the state’s five female minority lawmakers celebrated their policy victories over the last year and discussed the challenges that come with being in the public eye.

The conversation came the day after the state hosted the nation’s vice presidential debate at the University of Utah, and they also took the chance to weigh in on that event and the historic nomination of California Sen. Kamala Harris as the Democratic vice presidential nominee.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, who attended the debate as one of Harris' guests on Wednesday, said she had the opportunity to see the congresswoman off at the airport on Thursday. During their time together, Hollins said Harris told her that while she may often be the only Black woman in the room, that doesn’t mean she’s alone.

Harris, a biracial woman who identifies as both Black and Indian, said: “Everybody who’s gone before you and all of us who are the first, we’re standing behind you in that room and that’s something you really need to always remember,” Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, recounted.

“That’s just one thing I’m always going to keep with me,” continued Hollins, Utah’s first female black lawmaker. “When I walk into that room, I’m not standing by myself anymore and I have that image forever ingrained in my head. Now all of those women, who I look at as heroes in my head, who I have conversations with in my head, they’re standing there with me.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) ÒThis is about righting a wrong,Ó said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, who persuaded lawmakers to unanimously approve putting Amendment C on the ballot. The Utah Coalition to Abolish Slavery kicked off its campaign for Amendment C to remove old wording in the state constitution that they say still allows slavery as a punishment for crime.

Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, also noted the importance of Harris' South Asian American identity.

“I just feel that she gives hope to a lot of the young people, too, when she brings that culture and she can relate to when there’s all the unrest that we have, she brings something real to the table. She’s walked the walk,” Iwamoto said.

Speaking about the debate, Escamilla said Harris had to walk a fine line, noting the consequences the congresswoman could face as a woman of color if she didn’t maintain her composure.

“If you lose your cool, you are absolutely now not qualified,” Escamilla said. “If a white man loses his cool he’s strong, you know, he’s showing power. If I lose my cool, then I’m the Latina out of control, right? It was interesting to see the dynamic and [Vice President Mike] Pence pushing the buttons on Sen. Harris.”

Rep. Angela Romero, who had, along with Hollins, attended the debate as one of Harris' guests on Thursday, revealed during the panel that she was dealing with a barrage of text messages and phone calls related to a comment she made in an interview with Fox News saying that she wished Pence’s wife had worn a mask when she went on stage.

“I just texted someone and said, ‘I’m going to report you to Highway Patrol because you’re telling me you want to kill me.’ I mean, those are things we experience daily by just serving in office,” Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said before becoming emotional and turning off her camera.

Romero’s minority colleagues said she faces the brunt of hate because she often takes up causes related to women’s issues.

Hollins even noted that the Democrats had to put up cameras and create special access cards to get into their caucus room after someone became upset about a bill Romero was working on to protect women who have been assaulted.

“We had to set measures in place in order to protect ourselves, particularly the women in our caucus, against this particular man who was upset about it and made it quite clear that he was upset about it,” Hollins recounted. “So unfortunately when we work on these issues that are vital to women, then this is the pushback we get.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks at a Black Lives Matter protest at City Hall Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

Many of the women on the panel said they’ve also received threatening phone calls and messages because of their work on Capitol Hill — something Escamilla said is becoming “the norm” in politics.

“We need to say enough is enough,” she said. “Because we want more women to be involved and that’s why getting more women elected is critical. Because when you get numbers to look more equal, now the dynamic is going to change.”

The panel, which was moderated by Westminster College professor Kim Zarkin, chair of the school’s communication program, was a special spin-off of a class called “How to Be a Bitch,” which explores issues of gender and sexism. The conversation grew out of an incident where a Republican lawmaker called New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “bitch” on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, Zarkin said.

While the exchange got a lot of media attention, Utah’s lawmakers said they weren’t surprised to hear that kind of language from a sitting congressman.

“As AOC said, this unfortunately is a cultural thing,” Hollins said. “This is something that happens. And that happens to many women, you know. When we stand up and we set strong boundaries, then we are viewed differently. We are viewed as being a bitch.”

But while the lawmakers said they and other women of color face unique challenges in politics because of both their gender and racial identities, they agreed that they’ve found strength over the years by leaning on one another.

“We rely on each other, we sometimes have those phone calls where there’s a lot of crying and a lot of laughing, a lot of cursing — which I’m embarrassed to say and accept that I do,” Escamilla said with a laugh.

Thursday’s “How to Be a Bitch” panel discussion will be re-broadcast on KRCL’s RadioActive program on Oct. 15 at 6 p.m.