In some ways, Utah has never been more integrated into the United States than it is right now. With its diverse and thriving economy, its greater access to venture capital, and world-class recreation in national parks and ski resorts, the state is the envy of the rest of the country.
But in other key respects, Utah stands apart from the crowd. It continues to have unique demographics, the highest percentage of Republicans, and a commitment to following its unique path on a range of issues articulated below. From having favorite adopted son Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee in 2012, four years later Utahns are scratching their head at what appears to be happening to "their" political party.
This dual perspective — Utah-as-paradigmatic versus Utah-as-holdout — frames my own “top 10” list of the newsiest stories impacting Utah this past year:
1. Same-sex marriage — The national landscape on family law has been transformed by the Supreme Court's June decision instituting same-sex marriage across the country. Utah's unique contribution was its Legislature's passage in March of employment and housing antidiscrimination legislation. In guaranteeing the religious freedoms of those who object to the judicial redefinition of marriage, Utah provided a path that honors the individual rights of gays and lesbians, as well as those of all religious beliefs, and preserves social peace.
2. The immigration debate — Nationally, the political pre-election season that began this summer has been dominated by alternating attacks on Mexican immigration and Muslim refugees. Utah again provides a welcome breath of fresh air. This newspaper has applauded Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for being the only Republican governor willing to allow Syrian refugees to settle in his state. We need more Republicans to challenge the nativism currently gripping the party.
3. Consensus prison relocation — After an extensive and collaborative statewide debate considering the needs of inmates, prison volunteers and the economic good of the state, the Legislature voted in August to relocate the penitentiary to Salt Lake City. It makes sense to build a needed new prison near the population center of the state, but in a location not as pressed by other land-use and economic development needs. A positive score for Utah.
4. The failure of 'Healthy Utah' — By contrast, the Legislature's unwillingness to do something, anything, to address the plight of low-income adults not currently covered by Medicaid is a loss for the state. Long after the legislative season ended, legislators and the governor were trying too hard to come up with a Utah solution. Thus they rejected valuable federal funds for the poor. A negative score for Utah.
5. Making sense of 'outsiders' — In the primary for the Republican presidential nomination, the last half of the year was dominated by outsiders. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, technology executive Carly Fiorina and real estate developer Donald Trump have proven that the Republican electorate is hungry for antiestablishmentarianism. Utah is still searching for its favorite candidate this time around — and has received visits this year from Fiorina, Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio.
6. Confronting climate change — From Environmental Protection Agency mandates to the United Nations' climate change conference in Paris, the push to do something about climate change doesn't seem to end. Putting zero-sum politics aside, it is heartening to see the dramatic investments in advanced energy, with Utah playing a significant role. As this newspaper wrote: "It is solar, wind and biomass energy, which are growing at a remarkable rate and will continue to account for a larger share of the overall market."
7. Pope Francis' visit and the World Congress of Families — The pope didn't come to Utah, but he might as well have visited the Salt Lake Valley. Increasingly, people of all creeds make common cause to defend faith, family and religious engagement in the public square. As with Pope Francis in Washington and Philadelphia in September, the World Congress of Families in Salt Lake in October didn't shirk from standing firm and in expressing their respective beliefs in traditional values.
8. The election of Jackie Biskupski in Salt Lake City — Both Mayor Ralph Becker and challenger Biskupski were given positive marks by the LGBT community in Salt Lake, and the race was remarkably free of negative campaigning. But the headlines since Biskupski's election, and her impending same-sex marriage, highlight a future of coexistence in this state.
9. The ‘Internet of Things’ — Information technology is migrating everywhere. Nothing embodies the passing of clout from energy extraction industries to tech more than renaming the home of the Utah Jazz from EnergySolutions Arena to Vivint Smart Home Arena.
10. A sleeper issue: public lands — Fights over usage of federal lands continued to smolder in 2015. Look to see far more about the politics, economics and environmental impact of public lands initiatives in the new year.
Drew Clark is of counsel at the law firm of Best Best and Krieger, where he focuses on technology, media and telecommunications. Connect on Twitter @drewclark or via email at [email protected].