Democrat Chris Peterson wages campaign against Utah’s one-party rule

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Peterson, the Utah Democratic candidate for governor, and his running mate Karina Brown, left, tour the Utah Electrical Training Alliance in West Jordan with Steve Woodman, from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) #354; Carl Brailsford, director of the Electrical Training Alliance; and Mike Lanoue, assistant training director for the Alliance, on Oct. 16, 2020.

Before he became a consumer advocate, Chris Peterson was a debt collector.

It was one of several jobs the Democratic gubernatorial candidate worked in college as he was scraping together cash for his international travel plans. And, as he vividly recalls, it meant spending evening after evening on the phone with people who were underwater on their 520% interest rate loans.

“Day after day,” he said, “I was calling and collecting bills from people whose families were just in the worst circumstances.”

People would plead that they didn’t have enough money for gas to get to work. They’d tell him about husbands who’d abandoned their families. He’d hear children crying in the background.

His job, he said, was to explain to these desperate people that they had to make another payment or else his company would sue and potentially seize their car and other assets.

He’d been thinking about what career he should pursue after he graduated from the University of Utah. The experience in debt collection shaped his vision for the future.

“That’s the time I wanted to focus on making a difference in people’s lives,” he said, “and finding a path to lift people up.”

Peterson says that principle led him into law school and a career in consumer protection. Years later, it also pushed him into Utah’s race for governor — a contest that no Democrat has won in four decades.

It wasn’t an easy decision. House Minority Leader Brian King says Democrats have in the past regarded a run for statewide office in Utah as a “kamikaze mission,” and even Peterson acknowledges he laughed when party recruiters first asked him to consider it.

But even though Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has a massive fundraising advantage and a commanding lead in the polls, Peterson and other party members point to signs that Utahns are growing weary of GOP dominance over state government.

Utah voted in the last election for ballot measures to expand Medicaid and bring medical marijuana to the state, Peterson notes. They also supported a ballot initiative to prevent the legislative gerrymandering that many Democrats believe has stacked the deck against them.

The fact that state lawmakers replaced or rolled back all of these measures is evidence that the Republicans in power are out of step with the majority of Utahns, Peterson contends.

“I’m not saying that this is the year for Utah to turn completely blue,” Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said. “But we’re certainly starting to see some changes, both on the demographics and the political views the people of the state of Utah have."

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson speaks at the Utah Foundation Anniversary Luncheon at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Sept. 17, 2020.

Road to the campaign

The personal story that Peterson tells during many candidate forums and appearances begins with his great-great-grandfather, John Taylor, who led a wagon party to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, served as the third president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was speaker of the Utah House.

Peterson said he came from much humbler beginnings. He was raised in West Valley City by a single mom with multiple sclerosis — one of his earliest memories is of pushing her wheelchair around the grocery store — and got his first job at age 10 or 11 picking up trash at a strip mall.

As he grew older, his mother received medical care that helped send her disease into remission and regained the ability to walk, he said. She had what Peterson describes as a “whole renaissance” in her life, becoming a handicap parking enforcement volunteer for the city and later a planning commissioner and city councilperson.

“I just saw firsthand that in law and politics, there’s the potential to really make a difference for people,” he said.

Until now, that’s largely meant working behind the scenes. He’s spent time at the U.S. Department of Defense trying to protect service members from predatory lending and at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he battled abusive and deceptive bank and lending practices.

After about five years of commuting between Utah and Washington, D.C., Peterson decided to leave the federal government and settle into his role as a law professor at the University of Utah. The 45-year-old is now living in Salt Lake City with his wife and three children.

Peterson said Utah Democrats tried to recruit him to run for attorney general at one point, but he turned them down because he didn’t want to create complications for his wife, who was working as the state’s assistant solicitor general. (She’s since moved into private practice.)

Then party members asked about running for governor. And though he laughed them off at first, he ultimately said yes.

Can a Democrat win?

Tim Chambless, an associate professor of politics at the U., believes a statewide race for governor is winnable for a Democrat and argues a member of the minority party could mount a particularly strong challenge this year.

For one, the damage done by COVID-19 may have left some voters disenchanted with those currently in charge, Cox included, he said. In addition, with the end of straight-ticket voting, Utahns can no longer check a single box and vote for all candidates of one party, the professor noted.

The sponsor of the voting legislation, Rep. Patrice Arent, has been a political mentor of Peterson and said he’s quickly adapted to the campaign trail, even though this is his first time running for elected office.

“Chris would be a fabulous governor, and I hope people will really take a look at him when they’re considering how to vote,” Arent, D-Millcreek, said. “He will bring a new and fresh perspective to state government.”

As the Democratic nominee, Peterson has portrayed himself as a moderate candidate, supporting his ideas with biblical references and declaring outright that voters shouldn’t lump him together with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In an interview, he suggested using the word “conservative” to describe his approach to the state’s tax system — which he’d like to make more progressive.

This type of campaigning might be necessary to win over voters who’ve been influenced by conservative attempts to demonize Democrats, argues King, a Salt Lake City lawmaker. To gain ground in Utah, Democrats will have to debunk these caricatures and define themselves on their own terms, party members say.

“I don’t know if a [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.]-type politician is going to do really well in, say, St. George right now,” Merchant said. “But I’m pretty sure that most of the voters in St. George believe in the base principles that most Democrats believe in.”

Intelligent and firm in his convictions, Peterson is a good ambassador for the Utah Democrats in this moment, the state party chairman said.

Cox’s campaign manager said the race with Peterson stands in contrast to the acrimony of the national political scene. The two candidates politely discussed their differences in policy during a debate televised statewide just before the first presidential debate, where President Donald Trump interrupted, contradicted and mocked Joe Biden, who responded by calling the Republican a “liar” and a “clown.”

“Lt. Gov. Cox and his opponent have been able to discuss and debate the issues in this election in a civil and respectful manner, which is too often missing in today’s political dialogue,” campaign manager Austin Cox said in a prepared statement. “While they disagree on certain core issues, Spencer is committed to working with his opponent and all Utahns if he is elected to serve as Utah’s next governor.”

Recent polling makes clear that Peterson has struggled to introduce himself to Utah voters. When asked for their opinion of Peterson in a recent survey by Y2 Analytics, about 63% said they were unaware of him.

“That’s brutal,” Quin Monson, a partner at the Salt Lake City polling firm, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I think [Peterson] is an interesting candidate and an interesting nominee and certainly smart and articulate, but he’s underfunded and unknown.”

Finding the weaknesses

The challenge for Democratic candidates, King says, is also to make the case that the GOP is the party of Trump, whose crude rhetoric and checkered personal history have likely cost him votes in Utah. And even though Cox himself is viewed as a middle-of-the-road Republican, he can’t risk alienating Trump voters by coming out too strongly against the president, King says.

“So [Cox] is a Trumper ... because he enables Trump by not saying anything,” the House minority leader said. “Their unwillingness to cross this base of hardcore Trump voters, who really believe in some incredible stuff that’s nonsensical, enables them to remain in power.”

According to King, the power of Trump’s political base has also come to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic as Utah’s Republican leaders have experienced waves of opposition to mask mandates and the governor’s emergency orders.

Peterson has hammered away at the state’s coronavirus response, which he’s characterized as a failure, and made clear that he’d issue a statewide order on face coverings if he were in office. He’s also taken aim directly at Cox, calling his opponent a “good person” but unqualified to help lead the state’s campaign against COVID-19.

Earlier this month, the Democratic candidate released his 11-point plan for curbing the surge in coronavirus cases across the state by increasing testing capacity, beefing up contact tracing, getting personal protective gear to employees in high-risk fields, and making sure health experts are leading the state’s response.

He’s also made education funding a central part of his campaign and vowed to invest more resources in the classroom, decrying the fact that the state for years has finished dead last in per-pupil funding levels across the nation. Peterson has argued for doing away with the sales tax on food, reforming the overall tax system to make it more progressive, supporting labor unions, and encouraging the state’s transition to renewable energy sources and hybrid or electrical vehicles.

And though Peterson is trailing in the polls as Nov. 3 approaches, Chambless said, it’s likely valuable to him that he’s been able to make sure these topics are part of the election discourse.

“He’s seeing it as an opportunity to raise a number of issues that concern him,” he said. “But still, he’s got a ‘D’ on his forehead.”