Patrice Arent on 20 years in the Legislature: ‘I was not exactly your ideal candidate’

From creating a ‘safe haven’ program for newborns to working to clean up Utah’s dirty air, the veteran lawmaker has a long list of achievements.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, one of the longest serving lawmakers in Utah, is retiring after two decades. Arent is shown here on the opening day of the 2018 legislative session in the state Capitol, Jan. 26, 2018.

Patrice Arent didn’t exactly fit the mold for a Utah politician when she first ran for office in 1996.

She was new to the district, the only Democrat running for miles around and was up against a popular incumbent Republican.

“I didn’t have any background, and I was nursing my son to keep him quiet during the fundraising phone calls,” Arent recalls. “I was not exactly your ideal candidate, should we say. I wasn’t part of the local church, I didn’t have any kids in the schools.”

“I somehow won, which was a shock to everyone, including me,” she added.

(Courtesy of Patrice Arent) Rep. Patrice Arent's first campaign brochure from 1996. Arent would go on to win this campaign and each subsequent campaign over two decades.

Arent went on to win election after election, including a 2002 bid against the Senate majority leader after her district was, as she describes it, “gerrymandered off the face of the earth.” She later returned to the House for several more terms.

As she retires Thursday at the end of her term, after two decades of public service, she’s leaving behind a legacy of bipartisanship, mentorship and an unflagging work ethic.

Arent’s career in public service is rooted in her upbringing. During her childhood, she was inspired by the examples of her mother, Lynn Arent, who worked on the 1944 presidential campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt and as the White House and congressional liaison for the Democratic National Committee, as well as her uncle, Albert Arent, who helped found the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Her religion also played a part in her decision to pursue jobs in public service. She says the Jewish concept of “Tikkun olam,” which translates to “repair the world,” has pushed her to be involved in her community and public service throughout her life, including becoming the first female and longest-serving co-president of the National Association of Jewish Legislators.

Before delving into politics, Arent worked in the Utah attorney general’s office and served as associate general counsel to the Utah Legislature, experiences that would eventually aid her in elected office.

From newborn safety to clean air

Pinning down her biggest accomplishment is like trying to pick which kid she loves the most, Arent says, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t had her fair share. Among the nearly 90 bills she’s passed is Utah’s Newborn Safe Haven law, which allows mothers to relinquish babies anonymously — with no police involvement and no questions asked — to help prevent dangerous abandonment restrooms or dumpsters. The law has saved the lives of more than an estimated 40 newborns. Arent says the actual number is higher because the records are incomplete and women have called the hotline and were referred to places to get help.

(Courtesy of Patrice Arent) Rep. Patrice Arent poses for a photo with Sam Peterson in 2005. Peterson is one of the children whose lives have been saved as a result of Utah’s Newborn Safe Haven law.

She also sponsored Utah’s law outlawing smoking in a vehicle with a passenger younger than 16 years of age and successfully pushed legislation requiring public schools to allow students to carry asthma inhalers.

Her other achievements have happened outside formal sessions, including the founding of the Utah Clean Air Caucus in 2013.

“We have passed more air quality legislation than in the history of the state,” Arent says of the bipartisan group. “When I started, I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t have a science background. … I just knew that it was important.”

She eventually recruited Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, to be one of her first co-chairs of the caucus. He says as a result of Arent’s work, clean air legislation has been a concerted focus in every legislative session.

“It’s hard for me to calculate the number of bills that were read during the time that she served as a co-chair and since the time that she started it, but it was a significant number,” he says. “And if you compare that same time frame with the previous time frame in terms of how we address clean air, I don’t think there’s any comparison to the advances that we made.”

At first, Lowry was confused as to why Arent would ask him, a member of the opposite party, to work with her on the caucus. Now, however, he says that kind of bipartisanship is her trademark.

“She enjoyed a very high level of respect on both sides of the aisle,” he says. “That was evident when she would speak on the floor. People listened.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Rep. Patrice Arent speaks as the bipartisan House Clean Air Caucus holds a news conference, Jan. 22, 2014, at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City to discuss legislation regarding Utah's air quality.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo — has partnered with Arent on various pieces of legislation, including most recently a bill passed this year to end straight-ticket voting to encourage voters to pay more attention to individual races and candidates, rather than voting straight Republican or Democrat by marking a single box.

Despite belonging to different parties, Bramble says he and Arent were frequently able to find common ground.

“She brought a different perspective, and I think that’s healthy,” Bramble says. “She’s made a very positive contribution to the House, the Legislature and to the state.”

A mentor for dozens of leaders

The policies Arent has sponsored and helped implement have undoubtedly made a difference, but one of her biggest impacts on the state has been the mentorship role she’s played to dozens of Utah leaders.

“I’ve tried to mentor a lot of people, people that are minorities, people that are not minorities, women, men,” she says. “I think it’s important.”

Outgoing U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams first benefited from Arent’s mentorship when he took a job as an undergrad working on communications for Utah House and Senate Democrats.

“At first, I was kind of intimidated by her because she’s just clearly very smart, hardworking and sets high expectations for the people who work with her,” he says. “But I also came to see a kind and generous and caring person who loves to build people up. I felt she invested in me as an individual, helping me and caring about what was going on in my life.”

This is who she is, McAdams says. “I wasn’t the only one. I know that there are so many people who were mentored at the care of Patrice Arent.”

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, is another one of Arent’s fans. The two were first acquainted when Moss was considering whether to run for office. Moss, who was teaching high school English and had zero political experience at the time, wasn’t sure she was up to the task.

“I thought you had to have money and had to be an active, involved member of the LDS Church. I’m a churchgoer, but my husband is not; I’d been divorced; and I’m not wealthy,” Moss says. “But [Arent] said, ‘I’ll help you every step of the way.’”

Arent’s leadership and example, Moss says, have cleared the way for minorities to come after her.

“She brought that perspective that you don’t have to be a member of the dominant religion and you don’t have to be a member of the majority party to accomplish things,” she says. “She’s really set a standard.”

That standard is something Women’s Leadership Institute CEO Pat Jones also took away from Arent. “She set a very high bar that I wanted to emulate,” says Jones, whom Arent recruited to fill her seat in the Senate after she decided to move on.

Jones now passes on the lessons she learned from Arent to hundreds of other women in her work at the Women’s Leadership Institute.

“She’s had a huge imprint on the women in Utah, whether they be Republicans or Democrats,” Jones says.

In addition to building up individuals, Arent has also been a key player in the Utah Democratic Party, and her retirement will be a blow to the caucus, according to party Chair Jeff Merchant.

“We have some elected officials in the Democratic Party who distance themselves from the party or don’t really focus on helping build the party up,” Merchant says. “Patrice has always been someone who has not only supported the party but actively tried to build it up.”

( Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, speaks at a Clean Air, No Excuses Rally held at the state Capitol, in this Jan. 31, 2015, file photo. Arent founded the Utah Clean Air Caucus in 2013 and has been a driving force in the state's discussion on clean air issues ever since.

He added that she’s played an important role in inspiring young people to join the party and in recruiting candidates. Her work and success, he says, are indicative of changes Utah has seen over the past few years in politics.

Arent says 2020 was a particularly difficult year for the party because of some “heartbreaking losses” and the inability to canvass door to door and hold community events because of COVID. However, she is still optimistic about the future of Democrats in Utah.

She views party politics in Utah as a pendulum that swung from 20 straight years of Democratic governors to being heavily Republican and is now making its way back to the center.

“I look at some of my interns and other young Democrats and other candidates who have stepped up. And I really see a bright future with some really wonderful people starting to get involved,” she says.

She’s less sure, though, about what’s next in her own life. Hopefully, it’ll include a bucket-list trip to New Zealand and a visit to New York to see her grandchildren. She’s put off both because of the pandemic.

(Courtesy of Patrice Arent) Rep. Patrice Arent, second from left, with her husband, daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter and son. Arent's post-legislature and post-COVID plans include visiting her daughter's family in New York and a trip to New Zealand with her husband.

“I’ve intentionally not decided,” she says. “But I will be doing something. I am not retiring; I’m rewiring. You just never know where you might end up, and I’m assuming there are going to be some wonderful opportunities.”

Editor’s note: Utah’s newborn safe haven program promises anonymous placement of a baby with no police and no questions. It’s 24/7 hotline is 866-458-0058. More information can be found at www.utahsafehaven.org.