Kael Weston: Legislature leaves the stench of rotting democracy in the air

Utah redistricting process was democratic decay at its worst.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Over 100 people spoke in opposition to the Utah Legislature’s Redistricting Committee's only public hearing for the map proposals, Capitol's House Building, Room 30, Nov. 8, 2021.

It is the smell of Fallujah – where the biggest battle of the Iraq War happened in 2004 – that has stayed with me most after all these years.

The decay of human flesh under bombed-out buildings filled the air, almost everywhere, that cold winter half a world away. I was the U.S. State Department representative charged with rebuilding the political process in Iraq’s war-ravaged “city of mosques.” Mine was a job of epic proportions. Marine tanks were parked under damaged minarets and numerous platoons of Marine infantry — teenagers, really — patrolled dangerous streets as I sought out Iraqi local leaders to work with us, the American Occupiers, one long day at a time.

Now back home in Utah years later, if the rot of democracy had a smell, it would have filled the Utah Capitol’s House Building Room #30 Monday night across six hours. Along with hundreds of other Utahns, I attended the Utah Legislative Redistricting Committee’s only public meeting on their proposed political maps that will frame our state politics for the next ten years.

What I witnessed was democratic decay at its worst and happening in real time. Utahn after Utahn stood up, spoke out, in person and online, about the need to respect the will of the people when it comes to political mapmaking. There were teachers in the room. Activists. Environmentalists. A lot of Democrats but also quite a few Republicans. Old. Young. People of color and plenty of middle-aged white guys.

The theme was common: Listen to us, listen to the people. Respect the will of Utahns. And, sure as hell, do not gerrymander Utah’s congressional map by politically “cracking” Salt Lake County into four pieces – as their map did. Utah’s largest county has been chopped three ways for the last decade. I know firsthand because I was the Democratic Party nominee in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District in 2020, a vast area that covered 14 counties, almost half the state, from Farmington to Big Water (pop. 562), Tooele to Torrey, and St. George to the Avenues.

Redrock. Alfalfa. And, yes, skyscrapers – much of the gerrymandered base, in other words, of Utah’s disenfranchised and often demoralized Democrats.

In 2018, over a half a million Utahns, a majority, passed Proposition 4, which prioritized transparency, fairness and keeping “communities of interest” together in the redistricting process. Despite being politically neutered later on by the Legislature, Utah’s Independent Electoral Commission and staff, and the nonpartisan group Better Boundaries, worked hard this past year, out in the open. The end product was good maps. Good choices for legislators.

None of this work was taken into account. Supermajority Republican legislators instead did their own thing. The entire evening smelled to high heaven, or rather all the way to electoral hell if you’re a Democrat or member of a minority community in the most urban and diverse parts of the state.

I had done my democratic due diligence before this week. Across the last two months, I attended six legislative redistricting committee hearings, putting in over 500 miles in my old truck, joining legislators for their hearings in Rose Park, Richfield, Moab, Price, Summit County and in Clearfield.

In Rose Park, community leaders showed how cohesive their area was and should be – a working class post-WWII suburb of Salt Lake (where my sister lived for several years in the 90s) with compact streets named after different varieties of rose bushes. At Richfield High, several rural county commissioners said the Legislature’s job was, and this is a verbatim quote, to “protect Chris Stewart.” In Moab, a Monticello resident conveyed an outright us vs. them mentality toward Moabites. She urged visiting legislators to basically put a big red stockade wall between her self-described idyllic rural community and the loud and un-Utah, in her view at least, booming tourist mecca up the road.

In Price, a teacher described how Utah remains a tale of two states, with poverty and educational challenges unique to the post-coal area. In Summit, the volume was at its highest as residents described their own three-way political split, when their community of interest pointed most toward Salt Lake City not in the direction of Duchesne. In Clearfield, the subdued meeting was followed by a Mexican meal in town where a big Ford truck was parked out front with two Trump 2024 flags affixed behind the cab with tinted windows.

I left Monday’s meeting not only deeply disappointed but even more deeply concerned about the future of our Beehive State and country. This redistricting process seems only to have further divided Utahn from Utahn, neighbor from neighbor, American from American. More incivility. More apathy (“my vote does not matter” logic … and truth?). And likely more political violence, whether in months or years – the next decade is a long time for political insults to go from simmer back to boil. January 6th as preview, not rear view.

The small politics on display in House Rm. 30 was a disservice to our state and our people. The dying of a democracy is not preordained, but it sure has a velocity of its own – and in one downward spiral direction – unless those of us who care enough refuse to concede.

So, what is to be done?

The next time we will get our say in a big way will be on the ballots in 2022, 2024 and beyond. Let’s make our lists and check them twice. The deep rot of our democracy is painful to see, but we cannot look away, especially now.

We must not give up on our country – or on our Utah neighbors, whatever their politics, and whichever part of the newest gerrymandered congressional district we will soon share.

Kael Weston

Kael Weston, author, teacher, former State Department official and Rotarian, was the Democratic Party nominee in 2020 in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.