It’s a phrase politicians say when they talk about everything from gay rights to state finances, from police reform to medical marijuana. When they are proud of their work on a tough issue, they say they used “the Utah way.”
Think of those three words and what they mean: the Utah way. The maxim smacks of exceptionalism. That we compromise in a way that should be emulated. But what is the Utah way? What does it even mean? And do these compromises have their limitations?
The Salt Lake Tribune reached out to two dozen prominent Utahns from across the political spectrum. The group included elected officials, those who once held office and people who are active in business and public policy. We asked them to give us their definition and to pick the next thorny issue deserving of the Utah way.
How do you define ‘the Utah way’?
Former Gov. Gary Herbert has many thoughts about this. He should. He coined the phrase. Exactly when, he can’t remember, but Herbert, who became governor in 2009, said he first mentioned “the Utah way” when he talked about the state’s enviable budget. Utah regularly has surpluses, and it boasts the highest credit rating a state can hold.
“I’ve said many times, ‘Well, that’s the Utah way. We’re fiscally prudent. We’re wise in the use of the taxpayer dollars,’” he said.
Over time, Herbert’s use of the term grew. He now says the Utah way comes into play on just about every issue the state faces, and the philosophy embedded in that slogan closely mirrors his own approach to politics.
“I’m a proud right-of-center conservative. I am what I am,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “But I’m moderate in tone. I don’t yell at people. I don’t call them names. And I’m inclusive in [the] process. That’s how I tried to conduct myself for the 11½ years I was governor. And I call that the Utah way.”
To Herbert, it means negotiations stay civil, even on highly charged topics, and that everyone with a vested interest is invited to participate and listened to. Like many who responded to The Tribune’s request, Herbert pointed to the 2015 nondiscrimination accord as an example.
Lawmakers, prominent gay leaders and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spent weeks crafting an agreement that protected LGBTQ Utahns from discrimination at work and in housing, while also carving out exemptions for churches and other religious organizations. Utah received some praise — even if the agreement didn’t go far enough for some national gay rights organizations.
Like Herbert, Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, sees that compromise as a prime example of the “lofty aspiration” that is the Utah way.
“We found solutions together,” he said. “Neither side compromised our values, but rather we discovered new ways forward that respected each other.”
Herbert’s successor, Gov. Spencer Cox, said a key element of the Utah way is that the goal has to be reaching a deal, not scoring political points or securing total win for your agenda.
“The Utah way involves intense collaboration, real selflessness and a desire to find actual solutions,” he said, “as opposed to cheap political victories.”
State Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, insists the Utah way is real. And as a member of the state’s minority party, this approach offers “some hope” to build consensus on major issues.
This makes the state “more inclusive than what you see in other places,” she said. “For sure, way more inclusive than Washington, D.C.”
She pointed to immigration, as an example, in which an array of political, religious and business leaders created the Utah Compact in 2010, a set of principles that promoted family unity and helped fend off more aggressive enforcement measures in the Legislature.
The compact helped blunt attempts to pass a law pushing local officials to enforce federal immigration laws, led by former Reps. Stephen Sandstrom and Chris Herrod.
Sandstrom said he supported the compact but refused to sign it because one of the negotiators said his bill was “DOA,” short for dead on arrival.
“I’m not going to sign onto something where one of the main pushers on the compact are making statements like that,” Sandstrom said at the time. “It gets away from the civil discourse.”
Sandstrom’s bill was DOA, but the compact did lead to weeks of continued negotiation. The result was a guest-worker program but ended up being an example of the Utah way having its limits.
State lawmakers decided to make it contingent on getting a waiver from federal immigration laws. That waiver was never approved, and the program never took hold. Utah leaders haven’t taken much action on immigration since, still waiting on Congress to address the issue.
The church effect
Top Latter-day Saint leaders never signed the Utah Compact, but they did issue a statement supporting it. As for the nondiscrimination bill, they were prominent backers of it, even appearing at a celebratory news conference.
Church leaders were also heavily involved in the state’s eventual medical marijuana law, offered as an example of the Utah way by Connor Boyack, founder and president of the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute.
“Due to the LDS Church’s interest and involvement, there was a strong desire to forge a different path than had been trod by other states and come up with something unique that could satisfy stakeholders,” said Boyack, who campaigned for medical marijuana.
This compromise wasn’t clear-cut.
Utah voters passed a referendum creating the program — a ballot push the church campaigned against. And even before the votes were counted, the Legislature, with urging from the church, was crafting its own, more limited, program. That’s the one that carried the day.
A church lobbyist heralded the eventual law.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints welcomed the opportunity to participate in a broad community effort to alleviate pain and suffering,” Marty Stephens, director of the faith’s community and government relations, said in a statement. “Today, the passage of the Utah Medical Cannabis Act once again shows how organizations with diverse interests can come together to resolve difficult issues for the benefit of those who suffer while simultaneously protecting our children.”
Not everyone rejoiced, however, particularly those who thought the voters should have had the final word.
“We strongly urge state lawmakers to honor the will of the people on medical cannabis legislation,” said Chase Thomas, executive director of the progressive Alliance for a Better Utah. “Regardless of their personal policy preferences, lawmakers should respect that a majority of voters approved Proposition 2.”
Herbert acknowledges that the Utah way has benefited from the state’s lopsided demographics, saying, “Our homogeneity is an important aspect of what we’re able to do.”
By homogeneity, the former governor meant, “We are overwhelmingly Republicans. We are overwhelmingly members of the LDS faith. … That helps us probably all see things in more similar ways and that certainly does help eliminate divisiveness.”
The state’s population is roughly 60% Latter-day Saint, and while the faith has repeatedly expressed its political neutrality, in Utah, most of its members are or lean Republican. In Utah, Republicans hold all statewide offices, all congressional seats and a supermajority in the Legislature.
House Speaker Brad Wilson hinted at Utah’s conservative Mormon roots.
“From our earliest days, we have operated with a deep respect for hard work and personal responsibility, balanced with an uncommon concern for our neighbors,” the Kaysville Republican. “More than anything it is that natural empathy and commitment to serve others that sets us apart.”
Escamilla agreed that the state’s predominant religion has influenced the Utah way, but she said “I don’t think it has anything to do with political affiliation.”
“I don’t think it’s because Republicans happen to have the supermajority that this works. If it was a supermajority by Democrats, it was going to work the same way,” said Escamilla, who is a Latter-day Saint. “I think there is a cultural piece here in Utah of trying to be nice.”
It stands to reason that those who are more skeptical of the Utah way or have alternative points of view come from those outside of the majority and are less likely to feel that the outcome of a negotiation matches their positions.
Jean Hill, who lobbies on behalf of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said the definition of the Utah way shifts depending on the issue and the outcome.
“At its best, the Utah way is an approach to contentious issues based in the perspective that all sides have some arguments of merit, and we can build a better solution through conversation and mutual compromise,” she said. “At its worst, it’s a sound bite used to explain away policy decisions without the real work of reaching consensus.”
Hill views the nondiscrimination bill and the Utah Compact as the best of the Utah way and the state’s failure to expand Medicaid as its worst.
Voters passed a referendum to expand Medicaid in 2018. The Legislature then sought to change the plan, limiting its scope. In the end, the state failed to get a waiver from then-President Donald Trump’s administration and the broader expansion, similar to the one adopted by voters, took effect.
Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City Council member and an environmental activist, is more skeptical that Utah has a special way to solve problems.
“The Utah way is more aspirational than real,” she said. “It’s the pleasing notion that Utahns work together across differences to develop solutions.”
She acknowledged some success on human rights issues, such as gay rights and immigration, but she’s seen no evidence that the Utah way exists on environmental issues or the inland port, which she argued was foisted upon Salt Lake City with little discussion.
Escamilla said the most recent example of the Utah way in action came in January, when the Legislature passed a slate of police reform bills, which had support from law enforcement and communities of color. Those bills banned chokeholds, required more training for law enforcement and mandated the collection of more data when officers use force.
Lex Scott, a leader with Black Lives Matter Utah, liked some of the measures but maintained others should have passed even if police leaders opposed them, like one that would require the standard release of body camera footage.
“The police reform bills that pass are the ones that were backed by police,” she said during a panel. “And it’s like if you’re a child that gets in trouble and you get to choose your own punishment or you can set the rules.”
The Tribune asked the same group to identify the next issue worthy of this approach to compromise. Not all of them answered this question, but here is a sample of their responses.
Cox, the sitting governor, wants to take the Utah way national and use the approach to pass federal legislation that would enshrine national monuments, including the long-fought over Bears Ears, in exchange for an agreement that future presidents couldn’t create new monuments.
“We’ve invited the Biden administration,” he said, “to think differently than previous administrations about national monument designations and governance.”
Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, wants the state’s leaders to come together to make housing more affordable.
“Our state needs to build more low- and medium-priced housing quickly,” she said. “Creating this supply requires developers, local government, state government, our federal partners, neighborhoods, and the business community to partner to solve current problems and prevent them from worsening.”
Scott Anderson, CEO and president of Zions Bank, said the Utah way should be deployed to fight climate change.
“We can meet our goals without imposing mandates that hurt business and rural Utahns, but instead using incentives and common-sense free market principles,” he said. “While Utah isn’t going to reverse the warming of the planet by ourselves, we can lead by example and show the rest of the country and the world how to take on this great challenge, the Utah way.”
Seed also mentioned climate change and suggested that “critical race theory might be a good topic for thoughtful conversation across differences.”
Boyack suggested that the state could seek to reach consensus on “rethinking the ‘war on drugs’ and how we handle those who have substance abuse and mental health problems.”
If the Utah way is more than a slogan. If, as some say, it is part of the state’s DNA, there will soon be more examples of such compromises. Scott Howell, a former Democratic Utah legislator, believes in the Utah way and that it will endure even as the state grapples with a period of dizzying growth.
“We solve our problems because we recognize we are already together, and we find solutions in a rapidly changing community, state, country and planet,” he said. “Having lived in many other parts of the country and having visited every capital in the USA, I have concluded that ‘the Utah way’ is becoming as diverse and varied as any other state and a wonderful way to solve problems.”
Do other states have anything similar?
They sure do, but the Utah way isn’t the same as, say, the Arizona way. Here are a few examples:
“Our public lands require a public and transparent process to arrive at large, landscape-scale solutions. It’s the Nevada way.” That’s what Russell Kuhlman, of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, and Meghan Wolf, an environmental activism manager for Patagonia, wrote in 2018.
“For years, Nevadans have solved land management issues by putting political interests and personal agendas aside, sitting down in diverse collaborative groups and investing the time to hammer out solutions that work for all of us,” they argued. “It’s affectionately called ‘the Nevada way,’ and we’re pretty darn proud of it.”
“For me, it means a kind of rugged individualism — pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, while at the same time helping your neighbor in need,” Scott McIntosh, opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman, recently wrote trying to reclaim the term after 28 lawmakers pushed Boise State University to drop diversity programs proclaiming in a letter, “We need to do this ‘the Idaho way!’”
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey titled his annual State of the State speech in 2020 “The Arizona Way.” And while he didn’t directly define the term, he generally tied it to a conservative political philosophy.
“In Arizona, we believe in maximizing freedom and limiting government. We believe government should do fewer things, but do the things it does well. Let’s continue hacking away at the permanent bureaucracy and the ‘mother may I’ state. The people don’t need the government’s permission — the government needs the people’s permission.”
“At its foundation, the Oregon way is about prioritizing employee health and well-being by normalizing the correctional environment and, in turn, improving the outcomes for incarcerated people.”
This is from the Oregon Department of Corrections and is far from the only use of “the Oregon way,” but it is a unique one.