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Atticus Teter: There are no profiles in courage to be found in the Utah Legislature

What good is political power if you will not do anything with it to benefit the people?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Onlookers fill the gallery of the House Chamber as the Utah Legislature voted to override Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of HB11, which bars transgender girls from participating in school sports matching their gender identities, in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 25, 2022.

President John F. Kennedy inspired a generation. Almost every Clinton-era Democratic politician, and quite a few others, will name him as their reason for entering public service.

Kennedy himself drew inspiration from great figures from the past as well. In particular, he drew from nine senators, as detailed in his book, “Profiles in Courage,” John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Edmund G. Ross, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, George Norris and Robert A. Taft. Each stood firm in the face of almost certain political demise, and from each Kennedy drew lessons of courage, despite his distaste for many of their political views. Such acts of political courage deserve to be immortalized. They represent the best of what politics can be.

Unfortunately, our Utah Legislature represents the worst. With few exceptions, our legislators have kowtowed to the far right and big donors. (Sen. Daniel Thatcher’s courageous speech regarding HB11 is a notable exception.) They fear losing their seats, their power, their influence.

In their desperate attempts to stay afloat in an increasingly extreme political environment, they have forgotten why they serve in the first place — not to bow at the feet of large corporations or fight pointless culture wars that accomplish nothing but harm, or grant large tax cuts to the wealthiest Utahns, but rather to enact policies to benefit all of us. In their desire for reelection, they seem to have forgotten that they serve the people.

So, I’d like to preemptively congratulate them on their reelection because most of them will be. My question is: What then? Will they continue to ignore the real issues that Utah faces, issues such as the coming climate catastrophe and the drying Great Salt Lake, education and housing, pollution and water, in the hopes that they’ll be able to continue their political careers just a bit longer?

Will they sit in their imitation Capitol, taking votes that nobody will remember in 20 years? Because if they continue in this vein, nobody will immortalize them. They have done nothing to deserve it. The history textbooks of the future are being written right now, and none of them will make it in. Why would they?

Because instead of standing up and doing what’s right, the Legislature is ignoring Utah’s most pressing issues. To be sure, it is difficult to stand up against your own party and fight for the climate, education, housing, our air or any number of problems we face today. It may even cost them their reelection. But it is nonetheless the right thing to do, the worthwhile thing to do.

Reelection should not be the end goal. After all, political power is worth nothing if you don’t use it. And if they are too afraid to do anything that might jeopardize their reelection, do they hold any power at all?

Political courage is a beautiful thing. Those who display it the most can inspire generations. From John F. Kennedy to people such as Harvey Milk, at every level of government brave men and women are remembered and honored for standing up for what’s right, no matter the cost.

I wish our representatives in the Utah Legislature displayed such courage. I wish they were the type of people who could be remembered and celebrated across our state and across our nation. But they are not. They would rather play dress-up and grandstand in their poor man’s Capitol than make a difference, and they will be remembered as such. If, that is, they are remembered at all.

Atticus Teter

Atticus Teter is a student at West High School in Salt Lake City.