Two of the Utah Legislature's more accomplished women are running against each other this year for a southeastern Salt Lake County Senate seat.
Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Cottonwood Heights, seeks a third term in District 8, while Rep. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, a 10-year veteran of the House, tries to reclaim a seat held by Democrats in the 1990s.
"I have listened to and delivered for my constituents," says Walker, who believes this 2008 election will be a tough but winnable challenge for her. "We have two incumbents, if you will, running. And our records are out there for people to see."
And Walker is ready to debate Morgan on one hot-topic issue in the district: private school vouchers.
Walker "ignored the people in our district" when she voted for the private school voucher bill in 2007, said Morgan, a former schoolteacher. "That's one big difference between us."
Morgan, like all Democrats in the Legislature, voted against HB148, which would have given parents up to $3,000 per child in taxpayer funds for private school tuition. Last November voters statewide rejected vouchers 63 percent to 47 percent a thumping that Democratic leaders promised would be visited upon the heads of wrong-voting GOP lawmakers this year.
While Morgan claims "it was very clear" that District 8 residents were against vouchers from the beginning, Walker says that wasn't her perception.
"From all my e-mails and discussions with constituents, I believed they were split on the issue," Walker said. So she decided to support vouchers "as a part, just a part, of the education challenge, where we have to make our money go further in educating children."
According to a Utah Education Association analysis of voucher votes by legislative district, voters in Senate District 8 overwhelmingly opposed vouchers, with some precincts voting against the new law two-to-one.
"I won't support vouchers again the people have spoken, they hate it," said Walker, who considers herself "a political centrist, like my constituents."
But Morgan counters that most District 8 voters knew vouchers were always a public education disaster and no lawmaker could vote for them and really support public schools. "It was giving away taxpayer dollars to private schools with no accountability and that was clear by simply reading the bill," Morgan said.
Voters will remember that Walker was wrong on vouchers, as well as other issues, said Morgan. "It's a question of listening and representing the people," not following the lead of arch-conservative GOP legislators, she said.
Four years ago, the District 8 race was one of the more costly state Senate contests. Walker spent $80,000, and Democratic challenger Lewis Garrett spent $40,000. Walker won 57 percent to 43 percent.
"It will cost even more this year," said Walker. As an incumbent, Morgan "will have access to funds that my previous two" Democratic challengers did not have, she added.
Walker starts her 2008 re-election effort with 10 times more campaign cash than Morgan. In pre-primary filings at the end of June, Walker had more than $46,000 on-hand, to Morgan's $4,600. However, in 2006, Morgan was able to raise and spend around $40,000 in her House re-election campaign, so she can raise money.
"She will outspend me," Morgan said. "But no amount of money can change how she's voted and I have that on my side."
Besides education, Walker said she has been a leader in fighting identity theft and DUI. Morgan points to her "success" on a number of education issues, including passing a new reading program. (For more on the candidates' issues and backgrounds, go online to www.carlenewalker.com and www.karenmorgan.org.)
Walker is in a lucky GOP cycle her district is up for election when U.S. presidents run for office, leading to a bigger GOP turnout in Republican-dominated Utah.
"But, honestly, this will be a tough year for Republicans," said Walker. "So many of us are upset over what's gone on in Washington the huge budget deficit" that President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress piled up before Democrats took over Congress in 2006.
Asked if the public problems of state Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, (he is accused of making racists comments) in his District 10 race (that district makes up the western border of Walker's District 8) will affect her race, Walker said: "Boy, how do I answer that one. I hope it doesn't."
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