Kael Weston: Utah’s people and land deserve better protections

Mike Lee is a divisive and embarrassing politician who does not serve Utah’s interests.

(AP Photo) In this April 22, 1952, photo a gigantic pillar of smoke with the familiar mushroom top climbs above Yucca Flat, Nev. during nuclear test detonation.

As kids in rural Utah in the 1950s, my parents set their alarm clocks to wake up early to watch, in their words, “flashes in the sky” along the Nevada state line. In the small railroad town of Milford, the U.S. government’s nuclear tests were a big deal for children. Back then, entertainment meant hours outdoors under big but irradiated skies across our Beehive State.

Our government promised these tests were safe. They were not. The bombs poisoned Utah’s children. One Atomic Energy Commission official remarked at the time, “Those people in Utah don’t give a s--- about radiation.” We did then. And we still do.

January 27 is National Day of Remembrance for Downwinders. It should be a time of recalling this tragic part of our history and coming together as Utahns despite current divisions.

Today, I am formally announcing that I am seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Mike Lee – an extreme and divisive politician whose political rap sheet is long and embarrassing for many Utahns.

I am not new to politics. In 2020, I ran as the Democratic candidate in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District. Benefitting from a great team, many supporters and volunteers, I received 37% of the total vote in Utah’s most expansive district, which encompassed 14 of Utah’s 29 counties. I spent many days in remote parts of Utah, in towns surrounded by red rock, sagebrush and alfalfa, listening to and learning from Utahns of all types – Republicans, including Trump supporters, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. I still have the worn tire tread to prove it: over 8,000 miles in my old truck.

Running for office in Utah as a Democrat, while challenging, is not the hardest thing I have done. But it remains one of the most important things I will do. The Utah Legislature’s egregious gerrymander of political maps for the next decade means a true marketplace of political ideas, and debate, is even more important. More than half-a-million Utahns voted for a Democrat statewide in 2020.

Before moving back to Utah in 2010, I served for over a decade in the U.S. State Department, seven of those years in Iraq and Afghanistan. My civilian job was to be a diplomatic bridge between warring sides. I got shot at, bombed, RPG’d and was almost killed more than a few times. I carried notebooks, not a gun. I talked with Iraqi insurgents and ex-Taliban fighters. I worked to save lives.

In Fallujah, Iraq, location of the biggest battle of the Iraq War, I helped rebuild that war-ravaged city and reestablish local government by working with governors, mayors, city council members, tribal and religious leaders. In Helmand Province, Afghanistan, I partnered closely with a U.S. Marine commanding general to implement political-military strategy for almost 20,000 U.S. troops.

Across our country it feels like we are at war with each other. January 6, 2021, proved how precarious our national stability remains. I know from years of firsthand experience overseas what political violence can do to communities – and to entire countries. The skills I developed in two war zones are what I uniquely bring to meet the challenges we face as a dangerously disunited America with our democracy under threat, from inside.

Whether we live on a Garfield County ranch or in a downtown Salt Lake skyscraper, whether our family arrived in 1850 or last week – we are all Utahns – and there are issues that can bring us together. Good jobs, wages, and schools. Quality health care. Labor rights. Drought. Affordable housing. Reducing childhood poverty. Tax fairness. Equality. And, yes, protecting our public lands – all of us are fortunate to live in a stunning state that is a reminder of geologic time and perspective.

And yet, important bipartisan legislation that should unite Utahns is stalled right now. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), a hallmark bill of former Sen. Orrin Hatch passed in 1990, expires this summer. Neither Utah senator is leading ongoing discussions that would expand RECA. Mike Lee seems to prefer to footnote the matter. That is wrong.

I am running for U.S. Senate in the fastest-growing state in our country. We remain a crossroads of increasingly diverse people, industry, ideas, and optimism. But with our growth there are the challenges of affordability, clean air, water conservation, and more. Utah’s “geography of hope” is at risk of being loved to death.

Too many of our neighbors are also struggling. Utahns who get up early, get home late, then do it all over again. These families will find a genuine and persistent advocate in me. My first jobs were at Dairy Queen, delivering pizza, mowing lawns and cleaning toilets in a public park. I don’t own any stock.

A few days before my Dad, a downwinder, passed away last May at Huntsman Cancer Institute, he told my family, bedside, a story for the first time. Of all five newspaper delivery boys — he was one — in Milford who threw Salt Lake Tribs on front porches, Dad said all of them got cancer.

When government fails, as it is now, lives are at risk, not just retirement accounts. Like many Utahns, I am tired of seeing small politicians practicing small politics in our nation’s biggest jobs. Keeping our state moving forward and Americans together is going to take all of us who care enough – and a lot of shoulder-to-the-wheel shared work.

I ask for your support.