Utah Democratic leaders criticize ‘racially-charged actions’ by colleagues in the Legislature

The condemnation, which was a ‘call to action’ for all lawmakers, comes after a GOP lawmaker tweeted that Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is ‘a diversity hire.’

(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. Romero and Utah Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla called out "racially-charged actions" on social media by their colleagues in the Utah Legislature on July 18, 2023.

Utah’s top Democratic lawmakers — both women of color — are calling out what they say are “repeated racially-charged actions by elected officials on social media platforms.”

“... (W)e will not be silent while communities of color endure attacks online by our colleagues,” reads a statement posted to Twitter on Tuesday. “We can agree to disagree on policy and still be respectful while protecting one’s freedom of speech. Elected officials represent ALL people — our words and actions have consequences and can especially impact underrepresented communities who are already feeling targeted and fearful in the current political climate.”

The statement, attributed to House Minority Leader Angela Romero and Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, both of Salt Lake City, did not specify which lawmakers or comments it was addressing. In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Romero said it is a “call to action” for all members of the Legislature — both Republicans and Democrats — but she’s had conversations with Rep. Trevor Lee, R-Layton, regarding concerns she had with some of his tweets.

“Some of the stuff we’re seeing on Twitter I just find very offensive, and I think that people need to think twice before they just tweet it out, and especially when they’re an elected official because I feel like we’re held to a higher standard,” Romero said, adding that Lee has been receptive to her comments.

Escamilla did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did a spokesperson for Utah House Republicans.

Lee has come under fire before for social media posts attacking women and LGBTQ+ people, as well as posts that included “white supremacist language.”

More recently, he liked two tweets including racist sentiments toward prominent Black women — including former first lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson — in response to a video from conservative talk show host Charlie Kirk discussing affirmative action. In the video, Kirk infers the women are not intelligent enough to have secured their positions without the policy that aims to reduce the effects of discrimination.

“They work?” says one tweet, and another says, “If you’ve worked with black women, you’ll know this to be true.”

Bryan Schott, a political correspondent for The Salt Lake Tribune, took to Twitter to point out the freshman state lawmaker’s likes. Lee then criticized Schott for turning off replies to his tweets, and praised Elon Musk’s leadership of Twitter for opening up “the ability to get free speech uncensored from the right.”

Another Twitter user responded, saying, “There is nothing great about a platform allowing people to demonize black women like this. It’s the ugly side of free speech. The comment that black women have low IQs is racist. Racism isn’t about left or right. It’s about right and wrong.”

Lee replied, referring to Jackson, “You’re smarter than that ... . It’s not demonizing a black woman to speak facts about her. She’s a diversity hire. And it’s shown time and time again. She can’t even define what a woman is. How would you feel if the only reason you got hired was based on your skin color?”

Lee later deleted the tweet. He told The Tribune t was because his comments were being interpreted “the wrong way,” and that he was referring to President Joe Biden’s vow to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court prior to tapping Jackson for the job.

“I am quoting President Biden that he was looking for a diversity hire,” Lee said. “Well, that’s what happened, and I believe it’s evident by the way that she’s been ruling on different issues.”

The Tribune reported last year that Lee, then the Republican nominee to fill the seat for House District 16, operated a private Twitter account that he used to promote conspiracy theories and criticize Republican Gov. Spencer Cox as “spineless” for supporting transgender girls in athletics. Lee secured the GOP nomination over longtime incumbent Rep. Steve Handy, whose write-in campaign Lee went on to defeat in the general election.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Trevor Lee, R-Layton, talks about HB270 school cellphone amendments, during the House Education Committee meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.

At the time, before Lee was a member of their caucus, House Speaker Brad Wilson and House Majority Leader Mike Schultz told The Tribune they disapproved of Lee’s social media activity.

“Presenting one face publicly while posting demeaning comments behind a hidden Twitter account is disrespectful to the people and the electoral process,” Wilson said.

Schultz added, “These private, anonymous tweets in no way reflect the values of the House of Representatives or the majority caucus.”

In March, the Utah Democratic Party released a statement condemning tweets Lee made in response to a KSL article about a report from the Anti-Defamation League that ranked Utah in the top ten states for levels of white supremacist propaganda, and Republican leaders not answering the party’s call to censure him.

“This is an absolute joke. Really @ADL? Saying ‘all lives matter’ is considered racist?” Lee tweeted. The article did not include the phrase “all lives matter,” but instead discussed the use of “white lives matter” by supremacist groups in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. In subsequent tweets, Lee repeatedly echoed the phrase.

Romero and Escamilla said in their statement that they’re working to facilitate conversations with their colleagues about racism, and how to hold each other accountable — regardless of political affiliation — “when they say disparaging things against marginalized communities.”

Regarding their statement, Lee said he “liked it” and that he respects their approach, adding, “We can all get along and we move the needle on a lot of the issues, and I believe it’s because we have that civil dialogue between each other.”

The two minority leaders ultimately decided to issue the statement because “this is not just about being nice to each other or disagreeing nicely,” Romero said. “This is about talking about racism.”