Utah Democrats achieved a single blue blip in this year’s election

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep.-elect Ashlee Matthews in West Jordan on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. Her victory over Rep. Eric Hutchings, the Utah House's longest-serving Republican member, was the one gain for Democrats in this year's election.

In what turned out to be a disappointing election for Utah Democrats, one bright spot shone through. Her name is Ashlee Matthews.

The 34-year-old West Jordan resident defeated Rep. Eric Hutchings of Kearns, the longest-serving Republican in the Utah House.

Matthews, a working mother of two, was among several Democratic challengers ahead of veteran Republican legislators on election night, when it looked like the minority party might pick up as many as a half-dozen seats to put a dent in the GOP’s 59-16 supermajority.

But in the two weeks leading up to the final canvass, late-counted ballots widened the narrow advantages of three Republican lawmakers and eroded the leads of two Democratic challengers in other House races. When the dust settled, Matthews in House District 38, covering Kearns and part of West Jordan, was the last Democrat standing. She won by 396 votes out of nearly 12,000 cast.

Matthews ran a campaign focused on issues she said could benefit the lives of working families: affordable day care and after-school programs, expanded public transit in west-side neighborhoods and livable wages.

Although her term doesn’t officially start until January, she’s already opened a bill file she says is aimed at expanding eligibility for those who need state-subsidized child care.

“We’re trying to make good on the promises that we made,” she said.

The mother of two young boys, Matthews has been employed for nine years by the Utah Department of Transportation. She is married to Hyrum Matthews, a union pipe fitter, and the family lives in his childhood home in the Oquirrh Shadows neighborhood.

One piece of legislation she said she’d fight for is a livable-wage bill that would require bidders on state projects to pay most workers at least the local prevailing compensation.

And she said she would push to improve transit and transportation in her area, which doesn’t have near the system that the east side does.

“We just want to go to work, make enough money to pay our bills, and come home to our families at the end of the day,” Matthews said. If bus routes were more frequent and the TRAX system was expanded, she says families on the west side would benefit.

Her resume is filled with volunteer work, including as a founding member of the Single Parent Project, providing support and resources for single parents not eligible for state assistance; a mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters; and doing work for animal advocacy groups.

While this was her first run for elected office, she is no stranger to politics, having campaigned for Democrat Edgar Harwood in his challenge of Hutchings two years ago.

Hutchings eked out a win in that race — by 118 votes — his narrowest victory in nine elections.

Matthews anticipated that Harwood would run again this year and prevail.

“[I] intended to help support Edgar as he was running because I wanted to make sure that he took this across the finish line,” she said. But when Harwood moved out of state, she decided it was time to step up to the plate.

In many ways, Matthews followed Harwood’s campaign model. She started early and made an effort to meet every neighbor.

The biggest challenge, she said, was getting voters to complete the whole ballot. “You’ve got to make them fill out their ballot all the way to the bottom.”

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeffrey Merchant agrees that persuading voters to go beyond the top of the ticket races — for president, governor, Congress — continues to be “a really big challenge” and will require a “constant education battle.”

This year, the party launched a campaign “Don’t Stop at the Top.” In House District 38, the effort paid off.

Some 85% of voters in the district marked their preference in the District 38 race, up from 73% two years ago, according to the Salt Lake County clerk’s office. The total vote count was up 3,310 from 2018.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, is pictured at the Olympic Oval in Kearns, a place near and dear to his heart because of the numerous hours he spends there with his kids in competitive ice skating and hockey. This year, Democrats picked up one seat in the Legislature in the election, ousting the 19-year veteran.

Capitol Hill veteran

The average tenure for a Utah House member is about six years, notes Hutchings. He has been there 19 years.

That makes the Kearns resident the longest-serving Republican in the chamber. The only member with more tenure is Democrat Carol Spackman Moss from Holladay, who has a few months on him.

Hutchings began his legislative career there as a Democrat, when he was appointed in summer 2001 to replace Gary Cox, a West Jordan police officer who left midterm because of a promotion that required more of his time.

After his first session, Hutchings announced he was switching parties — the first Utah lawmaker in a decade to do so. The county Democratic chairman at the time fumed that Hutchings should immediately resign.

“I was told it was political suicide,” Hutchings said in a recent interview.

Instead, that November followed a redrawing of political boundaries that made House District 38 much more Republican. He won with 60% of the vote. It was the largest margin of victory of his career and has been declining steadily since.

Now, nearly 20 years later, Hutchings says, “It’s actually worked out really well.”

As a fiscal conservative who is more moderate on social issues, Hutchings said he felt free to vote his conscience and “let the chips fall were they may” regardless of party lines.

“[The] reality is 80% of the public are in the middle, and that majority continues to grow,” he said. “At some point, we’re going to have to do a better job of representing the middle.”

Among his proudest accomplishments was helping lead a massive overhaul of the courts and corrections system called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The thrust was to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail and prison and get them into mental health and substance abuse treatment.

“I honestly believe that Utah is now positioned better than any other place in America to give people who want to get their lives back on track a second chance,” Hutchings said.

A recent audit criticized the effort for failing to reduce recidivism because while sentences have been lightened, the state so far has failed to ensure adequate oversight and only partially improved treatment programs.

Hutchings acknowledges the program remains a work in progress but believes there’s a good foundation on which to build.

He also was instrumental in launching a traumatic brain program that he said is widely recognized as “world class.”

Now that he’s on his way out, Hutchings freely acknowledges how much he’ll miss it.

“I don’t need the title; I don’t need pay,” he said, laughing at the relatively low compensation Utah’s part-time lawmakers receive. “But at the end of the day, if you’re willing to be engaged and take the time, it gives you those moments that everybody hopes for on their deathbed, to know ‘my life mattered.’”

He by no means is done with politics. Asked about a possible run for the seat in two years, he says, “Oh, yeah. … Politics is now stuck in my DNA.”

He also noted that 2021 will bring the once-a-decade redistricting that could once again change the political makeup of House District 38 — just in time for the next election.