Kael Weston: Utah’s 2nd District deserves to be better represented

(J. Scott Applewhite | AP File Photo) In this Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019 photo, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, leaves a meeting with national intelligence inspector general Michael Atkinson about a whistleblower complaint, at the Capitol in Washington.

In 2010, I returned to my home state of Utah after a career in the U.S. State Department. Since then, I have become an author and college-level instructor, while also serving on Salt Lake County’s Open Space Advisory Board.

I enjoy this work but believe now is the time to step up and run for political office because our politics are failing our people, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged among us. As a private person, this is not an easy decision. Our most important ones rarely are.

It is, however, the right decision and worth the public scrutiny and 14-county wide campaign trail ahead that will result in a lot of tire tread wear on my 17-year-old truck. Today, our country is divided at home while challenges abroad grow. Even with a strong economy, the strain is obvious inside our country — a damaging and dangerous era of fear over facts — and with longtime allies around the world.

Too many politicians are putting ambition and party over country. Most are choosing not to remind us that being better neighbors, despite political and other differences, requires effort and understanding. Constructive dialogue should guide our interactions with coworkers, acquaintances, friends, and family across lunch counters and dinner tables.

Given this background and context, I will be seeking the Democratic nod in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, where I live, a seat currently held by Republican Chris Stewart. The 700,000-plus Utahns who reside within its boundaries deserve to be better represented. I strongly disagree with Stewart on key issues, which will be covered more formally and fully in coming weeks.

My former State Department job was unconventional and memorable. I represented the U.S. government for over 10 years, many of those in some of the most violent areas of Iraq and Afghanistan — Fallujah, Sadr City, Khost, and Helmand. Seven years in two wars taught me a lot about endurance, friendship, leadership, death, empathy, courage — physical and moral — and more.

Some of the most meaningful parts of my warzone experiences are the unique relationships and firsthand knowledge gained by connecting with service members of all ranks, from corporals to four-star generals. I similarly value my time spent with Iraqi teamsters, mayors, and governors, as well as Afghanistan’s religious and tribal leaders and students.

Both wars viscerally showed how elected representatives are charged with life and death decisions in matters of war and peace. Unfortunately, not enough well-meaning members of Congress measured up when military leaders and I briefed them in places named Camp Fallujah, Forward Operating Base Salerno, and Camp Leatherneck. Their questions were often disconnected from the realities and risks we faced on the ground.

I am a University of Utah graduate (tuition paid with student loans and day jobs), great-grandson of Danish immigrant farmers, grandson of a World War II veteran and a Union Pacific railroader, son and nephew of Vietnam War veterans. My mother was a 6th-grade school teacher for 25 years at Westmore Elementary School. Though not always well-behaved ancestry (a member of my rural family tree once rode with Butch Cassidy), service, character, patriotism and hard work have helped define my family’s roots.

Those roots run deep in central Utah: Beaver, Minersville and the small town of Milford, where my parents grew up. Relatives still work the land in these remote areas, downwind, surrounded by sagebrush.

The 2020 election year is critical. In addition to national security issues and the U.S.’s role in the world, our representatives should prioritize the daily concerns of Utahns. Elections, after all, are best framed by debating what is the common interest — not narrow special interests.

Health care: A lack of transparency and high costs leave too many families fearing bankruptcy because of medical bills. I myself am on the individual insurance market and have had family members experience “balance due” shock for treatments of cancer, Alzheimer’s, mental health and diabetes. Numerous Utahns battle addiction as well, which must be better addressed.

Living wages: I get the math of trying to make ends meet, how hard it can be just to get by. My first summer jobs were making Blizzards at Dairy Queen, delivering pizzas and cleaning public park toilets for around three dollars an hour. Now, as a self-employed writer and educator, I keep a close eye on product prices and store mark-downs. The last time U.S. income inequality reached present levels was in the pre-crash period of the late 1920s.

Gun violence: I learned how to shoot a .22 rifle and my grandpa’s pistol as a kid — before Fallujah and Helmand taught me what it feels like to be shot at. Too many Marine friends, and even more Iraqi and Afghan friends, were killed or wounded in both places. America’s schools must not continue to be their own version of a battle zone.

Public lands: Utah’s majestic geography is a public asset owned by all Americans, even as rural communities raise legitimate points about the balance between land protection, tourism, and local economics. Political leaders in Wyoming and Arizona initially fought the creation of Grand Teton and Grand Canyon National Parks, a stand they later regretted, and are now among the largest economic magnets in each state.

Climate policy: The U.S. must engage the international community, not continue to sit out global gatherings. For those of us who live in Northern Utah, just look out our Wasatch Front windows into the toxic gray haze as a reminder. Salt Lake City recently had the dishonor of being listed one weekday as America’s most polluted metro area.

Money in politics: A democracy-debilitating corrosion colored green that necessitates more serious discussion and possibly a constitutional fix. Instead of raising money, candidates should be focused on working toward bipartisan policy solutions. Politics in Utah and the U.S. must not become a millionaires- or billionaires-only club.

Veterans issues: Sending our mostly young to war means a lifetime commitment to them and their families once back home. Post-traumatic stress follows war as can post-traumatic growth — a point powerfully made by former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

Human rights, dignity, equality: These are values that demand vigilance and will always be worth fighting for. Stakeholders in Utah have moved in promising directions on these interrelated issues, but more work remains among church, state and other partners.

We also must not forget the essential principles of accountability and ethics in our government. America’s system of checks and balances requires public servants of conscience and wisdom, not allegiance to partisanship and division. We should insist on high standards of conduct and judgment in our politicians — or fire them and hire ones willing to listen and lead.

Utahns can make this happen at the ballot box. These challenging times demand more from all of us, including voting in greater numbers. Otherwise, apathy equals acquiescence.

Whether someone identifies as a Republican, Independent/Unaffiliated, Democrat or something else, I am looking forward to listening and learning about what is on the minds of neighbors, living in ZIP codes near and far, within the 2nd Congressional District. Policy outcomes that lead to a better shared future for all Utahns and Americans, as well as a safer world, will take genuine cooperation and finding common ground.

I hope to meet many fellow Utahns in the new year and continue the conversation at diners, coffee shops, community centers, campuses — or, better yet, on a lot of front porches.

Kael Weston

Kael Weston, Salt Lake City, is a fourth-generation Utahn, is a former U.S. State Department official, Rotarian, and instructor at Westminster College and Marine Corps University and author of “The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan.” www.westonforcongress.info, www.countryoverparty.info, www.betterneighbors.info.