Leslie Carpenter: Twelve days with Utah legislators made me a less angry constituent

It turns out that Utah lawmakers work harder and do more than I used to think.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, speaks on the floor of the Utah Senate, March 25, 2022. At left is Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

I grew up the sole girl with three brothers, so to say sports were big in our family is an understatement. They were an absolute cornerstone. If we weren’t attending a game, one was playing on the TV. Yelling about ambiguous calls by refs, poor plays, or lackluster coaching was as commonplace as prayers before dinner. With four armchair quarterbacks as my background track, it surprised no one how effortlessly I slid into the role of armchair politician.

It started like any other day: tweeting my annoyance over how the state legislature was (mis)handling something. Then my favorite politician to swap sarcastic tweets with commented. Bolstered by Sen. Todd Weiler’s comment – said in his signature flippant tone he only uses on Twitter – I issued a challenge and proposed that if he let me shadow him for a day when the session started, I’d apologize if I’d been too hard on the legislators. Without missing a beat, he replied, “You tell me which day.” I admit, I couldn’t believe he accepted the challenge.

My “Take a Constituent to Work Day” came two weeks into the session. Because transparency was a favorite legislative theme this year, I should disclose that I was nervous to spend time with the legislators I regularly complained about in a very public fashion. Regardless, I went in confident that I’d leave with a mountain of new complaints and Twitter content.

We started our morning in the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee. I don’t quite know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t spending hours listening to dozens of organizations plead for necessary funding. It was one heartstring-tugging story after another, and I quickly saw that only a few worthwhile causes could be funded before the money ran out.

Previously, I’d thought the Legislature was out of touch with Utahns’ struggles. Now I saw that not only do they have a front row seat to some of the difficulties Utahns face, but they’re also in the difficult spot of having to decide who they can save – and who they can’t.

After walking from the House building to the Senate building and then to the Capitol building, I began to regret wearing such high heels. If there’s one thing worse than your feet begging for mercy, it’s being proven wrong. I’d assumed legislators sat around for most of the session’s 45 days. However, in the 12 days I ended up shadowing House and Senate legislators, I lost three pounds from all the walking and stair climbing. With results like that, have I mentioned I’m now considering a legislative run?

I was positive our legislators would be aloof and elitist, so I was shocked when they pulled pranks on their colleagues and spoke my love language of snarky comments during debates on the Senate floor. I ended up genuinely liking many of them and developed actual friendships with several. For the first time, I saw them as regular people.

Sitting for hours on the House and Senate floors alerted me to many good bills that would’ve previously gone under my radar, and I saw I’d gotten myself into the habit of reducing legislators to their bills I thought were disasters instead of looking at their overall voting record.

Don’t get me wrong, I still loathe some bills that passed, and I still say, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” about a few legislative happenings. But getting to know our legislative process and legislators better over those 12 days illuminated how comfortable I’d become offering hindsight criticism, forgetting that elected officials often must make decisions based only on information they have at that moment.

It showed how reactionary I’d become: quick to anger and blame, but rarely acknowledging any positives. Being privy to the hard work done behind the scenes highlighted the many incredible legislators who don’t get enough credit.

Numerous things caught me by surprise during my time at the Capitol, but the biggest was realizing that I was going to have to apologize. So, to our legislative members, I’m sorry I bullied you on Twitter. I’ll be retiring from my role as armchair politician. Well, at least until your new bills are filed. I’ll try being nicer this time around, though.

Leslie Carpenter

Leslie Carpenter, Hyde Park, is the founder of the Become a Delegate training program, the chair of the Northeast District in Cache County, and a frequent contributor to the #utpol hashtag on Twitter.