Kael Weston: What Republican candidates say when (almost) no one is listening

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Goud Maragani, running for Salt Lake County clerk, gets three minutes to address the delegates before they cast their vote at the Salt Lake County Republican convention at Kearns High School on Saturday, April 9, 2022.

The best candidates, the ones I vote for, tell us what we need to hear, not what they think we want to hear. They visit front porches. They listen. And they are truthful.

What candidates say behind closed doors – when they speak as if they do not have to persuade anyone – is also worth noting many weeks before Election Day. These conversations can expose underlying motives in those seeking public office.

I recently attended a gathering of Republican candidates in Salt Lake County, held in a west side public library. Apart from candidates’ family members or staff, there was only one other person besides me in the room. This is what made the meeting so revealing. I found myself in a safe space for the extremist wing of Utah’s Republican Party.

Notebook in hand, I filled many pages in an hour. Here is what I heard.

Utah State Board of Education candidate (District 5) Laurel Fetzer complained to me about “Critical Race Theory.” Christina Boggess, who is seeking another board seat (District 8), criticized “data mining” of children.

Linda Paulson, running against Democratic state Sen. Karen Mayne, said she sees in government decisions “what Satan wants us to do.” Paulson went on to explain her longstanding opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, which she considered to be a declaration of war. (While with the State Department, I spent seven consecutive years in two war zones but opted not to debate her on definitions of warfare.)

The county sheriff candidate argued that GOP voters “must take Salt Lake County back and turn it upside down.”

Danielle Ahn, Republican candidate for Salt Lake County district attorney, had the most fluid presentation, filled with rehearsed talking points on crime. I later learned that Ahn is the former president of the University of Utah’s student chapter of the Federalist Society, a well-financed group that has worked hard to stack our Supreme Court with aggressively regressive justices.

Anti-democratic Sen. Mike Lee professes the shady society – a high court cabal really – to be the model of jurisprudence. Instead, the ultra-conservative group helped orchestrate the overturning of a near 50-year precedent in Roe with more rights now at risk.

But it was comments from county clerk candidate Goud Maragani that I found most duplicitous. I had read his website presentation of “Why it is good to question the election process” with examples that amount to a veiled kind of Trumpian “big lie” assault on voting access.

Maragani said Salt Lake needs a clerk who will encourage people to be skeptical of election procedures, drop boxes were vulnerable to manipulation and mail-in ballots are “least safe” and expensive to taxpayers because the county covers postage.

Maragani also remarked, “Someone like me will have more of an impact on your life than a congressman.” With these words, his hidden intent seemed clear. Maragani wants to politicize the clerk’s office – make it controversial – and, if elected, continue to attack mail-in voting, thereby making it more difficult, not less, for Utah voters to vote. De facto disenfranchisement.

This plot, which resembles similar ones being pursued in other states pre-2024 presidential election, should be politically damning. In 2020, more than 90% of Salt Lake County voters put their ballots in the mail, a popular practice that other counties in Utah have followed.

Defeating political extremists across our state and country should be a shared and urgent objective. Salt Lake County remains Utah’s most diverse. It is egregiously gerrymandered, particularly in Utah’s congressional map. One important way to resist super-majority rule is to work together so that extremism will not become rooted in our most populous, colorful and dynamic county.

When we get our ballot, let’s not miss a box. Fill it out to the very end. Ask hard questions of candidates, repeatedly. Research politicians. And remember: what Republican extremists say in an open forum, on the record to a reporter, in a slick video, or in disingenuous campaign website prose, is not necessarily reflective of a candidate’s true designs.

To get that – to get the truth – get into a room to listen and lean in, especially when candidates believe everyone there already agrees with them. And pay close attention to their words that follow.

Our democracy depends on wise votes for wise candidates who are worthy of our trust.

Kael Weston

Kael Weston, Salt Lake City, was the presumptive Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate this year and the Democratic candidate for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District in 2020.