Welcome to Utah, President Barack Obama. You’re making your first presidential visit here in your second term, and it’s been nearly eight years since your most recent stopover in the Beehive State, a quick August 2007 campaign appearance in Park City.
Much has changed since then. We’ll bring you up to speed so you have a better idea of the Utah you’re visiting. It’s more than just a “sparsely populated Western state,” “the Mormon state” or “one of the Republican-reddest states in the union.”
Actually, Utah is more “blue” than “red,” if one looks beyond political parties to the representative colors of universities, given the dark blues of Brigham Young and Utah State universities against the University of Utah’s crimson.
You’ve likely heard the laundry list of accepted Utah accolades. It’s the state with the highest birthrate and youngest population — and yet the lowest child poverty rates. It has long been listed as tops for volunteerism and the percentage of personal income donated to charity. For three years running, Forbes has ranked Utah the best state for business and careers, with a strong economy and emerging “Silicone Slopes” high-tech industry helping keep the state financially awash in black ink.
Also, Utah is often featured among the leading “best places to live” locales, while St. George is the country’s second-fastest growing metropolitan area and Heber City the second-fastest micropolitan area. And the state is internationally renowned for its tourism, national parks, recreation and skiing — the latter earning the tag “the greatest snow on Earth.”
Those are some of the givens. But dig a little deeper, and you find an even richer and surprisingly vibrant state.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote “Utah may be the most cosmopolitan state in America” because of the language training and international experiences of young adults serving missions across the globe for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Kristof cited University of Utah findings that more than 130 languages are spoken daily in commerce throughout the state. A myriad of ethnicities are represented in Utah, albeit not in the massive numbers of other coastal and border states, with the exception of a burgeoning Latino population here.
In Utah, we have concerns that resonate with you, your administration and your Democratic Party — air quality heads that list, along with protecting the state’s water resources. Education is a treasured ideal, although we’re mindful of our near-bottom rankings on student-to-teacher ratios and per-student expenditures. The state recently provided schools its largest funding in a quarter-century; we also note that quality of teaching and learning is more than the quantity of students in a class or the dollars in district coffers.
Despite the Republican-heavy leanings, Salt Lake City is considered a liberal city and home base to a pair of Democratic mayors — the city’s Ralph Becker and Salt Lake County’s Ben McAdams. You remember Becker — the current president of the National League of Cities who introduced you at that organization’s conference last month. Becker and McAdams stand probably as Utah’s two most high-profile elected Democratic leaders, with our U.S. Senate and House and key state government slots flush with Republicans.
We wouldn’t mind if you could encourage the national Democratic Party to help shore up its struggling state counterpart, in hopes that Utah could enjoy more of a vibrant and robust two-party presence. But the national party needs to come, listen and learn of local concerns and opportunities, rather than dictate and push national platforms, which in turn push away local potential candidates and voters.
Not that a stronger two-party Utah would deepen any divides. Consider Utah’s ongoing efforts in Medicaid expansion in helping care for our poor — in our state, it's not a partisan issue. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert — chairman-elect of the National Governors Association — worked closely with your administration to forge his Healthy Utah plan to gain as many allowances and enhancements as possible with your Affordable Care Act. Drawing widespread support from community, business and religious leaders, Healthy Utah would return a considerable share of Utah’s federal tax dollars to support the state’s health care for the uninsured. It and a scaled-back plan drafted by an ultra-cautious Utah House of Representatives will get closer consideration in a subsequent special legislative session.
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Perhaps symbolic of the state’s true spirit of cooperation was the Utah Legislature’s passing of landmark anti-discrimination and religious liberties bills, the result of lawmakers working with representatives of both sides of the issue, including the American Civil Liberties Union, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender organizations and the LDS Church. Both sides were very wary and very distant several years ago before reaching out and reaching agreement — with the legislation balancing anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community and religious freedom protections for the faith community. The process, passage and praise for the “Utah Compromise” stands out even more when compared with current events in Indiana and Arkansas.
And so, Mr. President, welcome. We hope Utah will be seen less as a flyover state and more as a pretty, great state.