Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck received her seat in the Utah Legislature when Democratic delegates elected her to replace Ralph Becker after his successful mayoral bid.
After serving District 24 for a scant nine months, Chavez-Houck now has the task of convincing more than just Becker’s delegates to let her continue serving as their voice on the Hill. But she says it’s a challenge she’s up for—even if some of her constituents aren’t sure who she is yet.
“I’m running into a lot of people who haven’t made the connection that if Ralph isn’t mayor anymore, who is that [who has taken his place],” she said. “So I’m making people aware that I’m the one who was appointed. I’ve tried to do the best I can in that short amount of time.”
In making people aware of who she is, Chavez-Houck said she took a leaf out of her predecessor’s mayoral campaign book.
“[Ralph] was just the kind of person who was very committed to running a grass roots campaign.” Over the past few months, Chavez-Houck said she has been visiting her constituents, attending public events in her district, and responding to voters who call her at home to ask questions.
It’s work with which she is well acquainted. Upon joining the Utah Legislature early this year, Chavez-Houck agreed to run a controversial bill drafted by Equality Utah that sought to overturn a 2000 ban on same-sex couples adopting children.
Before agreeing to champion the bill, Chavez-Houck said that she had not been “actively involved” in gay-rights causes. Still, she said she “didn’t need to think” about accepting it.
“For me it was the right thing to do,” she said. “I think part of what spoke to me is being a mom. I just imagine a world where somebody told me that I couldn’t raise my children the way I wanted to raise my children, or I couldn’t choose who would be my partner or who to co-parent with. … I just couldn’t imagine my children not being able to know who their parents are or that they couldn’t count on their parents being there for them. To be a parent and to have the anxiety of every day thinking if something happens to me who would be there for my kids—I can’t imagine having to live with that day to day.”
Although the adoption bill never made it out of committee for debate on the House floor, Chavez-Houck said that she will continue fighting for it if re-elected.
She will also continue to fight for another cause that has long shaped her political work: women’s rights (including reproductive choice issues).Before joining the House of Representatives, Chavez-Houck served on the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah’s Board of Trustees, the Utah Department of Health’s Rape and Sexual Assault Media Campaign Committee and the YWCA Board of Directors. She remembers testifying in front of the Legislature against parental consent laws for abortions and before the Salt Lake School District’s maturation committee a few years ago to advocate that schools allow teachers and parents an option to give students “medically accurate sex education.”
As the daughter of an immigrant from Mexico, Chavez-Houck also said immigrant’s rights are close to her heart.
“When my father came here it was a heck of a lot easier to come legally,” she said. “I guess when I see new Americans trying to make a living and a life for themselves and their families in this country I see his struggle to come to this country and have a family and take are of us. Those are opportunities I now wonderfully enjoy and I just think that there’s such a discrepancy between how easy it was in early part of the 20th century [to immigrate] and how it is now. The public policy we have now is not the reality of what is needed.”
To do her part in drafting public policy to help immigrants Chavez-Houck authored HB 428 Statewide Standards for Healthcare Interpretation. The bill would have ensured that healthcare providers offer eligible clients interpretation services, for which Medicaid and CHIP pay. Although the bill ultimately failed, Chavez-Houck has promised to continue working with the Legislature’s Interim Health and Human Services Committee on the issue.
Ultimately, the representative sees gay rights, women’s reproductive rights and immigrant rights as part of the same issue: that of constitutional freedom.
“For me it’s part of ensuring that people are treated fairly and that the protections afforded in the Constitution are given to everyone,” she said.
On her campaign trail, Chavez-Houck said she tries to discuss her support of the constitutional freedoms to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness equally with her qualifications for office. Along with sponsoring four bills in the 2008 general legislative session, she also held the 4th highest voting attendance record in the House. She has also put herself in touch with a number of “different advocate groups” in order to learn about issues on which she is not so knowledgeable.
She said she is also working hard to educate herself more fully on issues important to gay and transgender people. For example, she had a booth at this year’s Utah Pride Festival and also attended a transgender issue forum at the University of Utah to learn more about the legal issues transgender Utahns face.
“I feel like I’m very supportive of the community, but I know I can’t ever begin to understand what’s like to be someone from the community,” she said. “We know our own struggles and what we’re going through, so I try not to be presumptuous. I’m always learning and always open to learning more. And the best way I can do that is to hear people’s stories because that’s what we individually own.”
To learn more about Chavez-Houck visit voterebecca2008.com.