Kathleen Riebe, who ‘fell in love’ with Utah decades ago, now says she’s ready to speak for Utahns in Congress

Utah’s 2nd Congressional District special election: A public school teacher and state senator, Riebe has some lessons she’d take to Washington if elected to replace Rep. Chris Stewart in Congress.

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Editor’s note • This profile is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s coverage of this year’s special congressional election. Profiles for Republican special primary candidates Celeste Maloy, Becky Edwards and Bruce Hough can be found at these links.

When Kathleen Riebe talks, it’s not hard to tell she wasn’t born in Utah — she drops the R’s at the end of her words, like the born-and-raised New Yorker she is.

But having lived in the Beehive State for nearly three decades, the Democratic nominee in the 2nd Congressional District special election says the years she’s spent teaching in classrooms and lawmaking in the Capitol have made her more familiar with the district’s residents’ needs than her opponents.

First drawn to Utah for its world-class skiing, Riebe said she “fell in love” with the place, bought a cowboy hat and moved west. She now lives in Cottonwood Heights, and for the last four years has represented a Utah Senate district that covers some of the ski resorts closest to Salt Lake City.

Now she’s running to represent 2nd Congressional District Utahns in Washington, even though she lives a 15-minute drive away in District 3. With the Salt Lake Valley divided into four parts, Riebe said her address doesn’t make a difference in her ability to give a voice to the district that stretches from Utah’s southwestern corner north to Farmington. And both Republicans and Democrats have represented Utahns in Congress from outside their congressional district.

(Scott G Winterton | Pool) Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, and Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist, R-Draper, look out the windows as they and other Utah lawmakers take an aerial tour of the Great Salt Lake by Blackhawk helicopters from the Air National Guard, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

The boundaries for all four of Utah’s congressional districts — decried by Riebe and Democratic colleagues, and currently challenged in the Utah Supreme Court under claims that the borders are an illegal gerrymander — have been defended by Republican lawmakers as creating an urban-rural split.

When the members of Utah’s federal delegation are “constantly struggling with trying to walk both lines,” Riebe said that’s a disservice to everyone.

“If you try to put everybody’s interests in the same bucket, the person or the group is going to have a bias one way or the other,” Riebe said, continuing, “I think it dilutes the rurals from actually meeting the rurals’ needs, and I think it dilutes the urbans from actually meeting the urbans’ needs.”

While Riebe says her consciousness of the urban needs makes her a good fit to represent the quartered Salt Lake Valley, Iron County Democratic Party Chair Schuyler Rhodes said Riebe’s willingness to listen to other perspectives means she’ll do her best to look out for rural needs, too.

“I think people are concerned in Iron County ... and in far more rural places than Iron County, some folks feel like they don’t exist in terms of the state house and Salt Lake,” said Rhodes, who is a retired United Methodist pastor. “They want to be heard.”

A month after she filed to run for Congress in June, Riebe took a trip to Iron County to talk with voters at a meeting Rhodes hosted. Her willingness to travel beyond the Wasatch Front that early in her campaign, Rhodes said, “spoke clearly” as to how she’d treat rural concerns if elected.

No matter how eager Riebe is to listen to different perspectives, one major barrier stands in her way: She’s a Democrat. And Democrats have historically not performed well in federal elections in Utah.

Outgoing Rep. Chris Stewart outperformed his Democratic opponent by 25 percentage points last year, and won by 29 percentage points when he was first elected to the post in 2012.

“We need more voices that reflect changing demographics, changing families in the state of Utah that I don’t think are reflected currently in our congressional delegation,” Utah Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla said. A portion of her district sits in the 2nd District.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, a previous member of the Utah State Board of Education through 2018 tells the crowd she vows to fight for Utah teachers and students. Teachers in Salt Lake City’s teacher’s union stage a walkout and rally at the Capitol to protest teacher pay in an effort to pressure the Utah State Legislature as it decides how much money it will allocate to the state’s education system Friday. Teachers began the rally at the Federal Building and walked up Capitol Hill to the statehouse for a rally in the rotunda, Feb. 28, 2020.

Aside from potentially adding a liberal voice to Utah’s representation in Washington, Escamilla said being a Democrat in Utah’s supermajority Legislature has prepared Riebe to be an effective leader on the federal level.

“Survival of the minority here in this Legislature is not for the weak of heart,” the minority leader said after leaving a committee hearing earlier this month. “She’s used to having to speak up, and that’s something that I think is a great asset when you go to D.C.”

Among the issues Escamilla said Riebe has championed in the Legislature are education, workers’ rights and reproductive health, and all of those are topics Riebe said she would stay focused on if she’s sent to the nation’s capital.

This year is Riebe’s 22nd teaching in the Granite School District, and prior to being elected to the Utah Senate, Riebe was a member of the Utah State Board of Education. She’s also spent time as a truck driver, police dispatcher and wildland firefighter.

From being a member of the working class, to educating kids from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, Riebe — who says she can’t afford $100,000 to loan her campaign like some GOP candidates have — said one of her top priorities is finding a way to address “a discrepancy in wealth, and resources, and assets.”

“We have a lot of things that are supposed to give us freedoms, but really, those freedoms aren’t for everyone,” Riebe said during an interview along the shore of Great Salt Lake in Magna, near where she started her teaching career. “They’re just for the people that can afford them.”

The educator and state senator said she’s seen firsthand the challenges families are facing — whether that’s struggling to access health care, or affordable groceries.

“And so when you go to Washington and when you go to the Capitol, I see [a student] from my class 10 years ago when I make a rule. I see his mom who passed away, and his sister who is now taking care of them. Those are the people that I think about when I take a vote.”