Joel Briscoe: Building Sustainable Communities

One of the hottest races in Utah’s mid-term election is the one for House District 25. After openly lesbian Christine Johnson announced her resignation as representative of the heavily Democratic area, four Democrats made a bid for the seat. Earlier this month, delegates at the State Democratic Convention chose two of them to square off in a primary on June 22.

Former history and English teacher Joel Briscoe is one of the candidates.

“I think to show proper respect to Chris Johnson no one replaces her. We would succeed her,” said Briscoe, who has also served as the president of the Salt Lake City Board of Education.

Because Briscoe identifies as straight, he said he “cannot take [Johnson]’s place” as a gay legislator representing gay and transgender constituents. “But in terms of being supportive of treating everyone in Utah with compassion and legal equality and dignity, I will be a firm and consistent vote and voice.”

On the matter of legislation addressing the legal equality and dignity of Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens, Briscoe said that he would be happy to run any legislation to that effect requested by statewide gay and transgender rights group Equality Utah or any other related organization.

“I think that there are probably a number of Legislators that would be happy to run that legislation, and I would be happy to be the sponsor if they thought I was the good person to carry it,” he said. Briscoe added that he had been supportive of Equality Utah’s legislative push for gay and transgender equality, known as the Common Ground Initiative (which he calls “a good start”), and supportive of y and transgender students as a teacher. He was the first sponsor of Bountiful High School’s gay-straight alliance.

“That’s something I’d do 1,000 times over for that kid,” said Briscoe of the gay student who asked him to sponsor the club, which provides a safe space for queer students and their allies. “No one prepares for the day a student passes them a note that says, ‘Mr. Briscoe, I’m gay and I’d like to form a GSA.’ That’s something you never think is going to happen to you but it did.”

As an educator, Briscoe said he has seen firsthand the deleterious effects bullying has on students of all sexual orientations and gender identities. He would be willing, he said, to run anti-bullying legislation to “make schools safe places for all students.” Other classroom issues that concern him are the lack of “comprehensive sex ed” for students and the “politicization of schools” — which he sees in a recent decision in Texas to de-emphasize the importance of the U.S. labor and civil rights movements in classroom textbooks.

He is also alarmed at the Legislature’s lack of funding for public schools, even as class sizes increase and 400,000 students ready to enter the system this fall.

These are just some of the issues that Briscoe says Democratic delegates and residents of District 25 have contacted him to discuss.

“There’s an awful lot of anger and frustration over wasting legislative time on states’ rights message bills,” he said, noting that several of these appeared on the Senate and House floors during this year’s general session. If elected, he said he would speak out against these.

“I think you have to expose them for what they are, which is political ploys,” he said. “Why aren’t we talking about people we’ve cut form Medicare or how we can cover more people for health insurance, or how to fund kids coming to school next year, or the environment? There are so many important issues to discuss and I think the Democratic Party should be united in pointing out alternatives.”

“Maybe we should set up a clock and keep track of the time we spend talking about bills that our attorneys say are likely to fail in court or face severe legal challenges,” he added.

Other issues Briscoe wishes the Legislature would spend more time discussing include protecting Utah’s environment — and cleaning up the Wasatch Front’s notoriously dirty air. Briscoe has a number of ideas to help cut down on pollution, which include lowering UTA and TRAX fares on high pollution “red burn” days, and giving more state funds to mass transit than to road building. He also advocates putting Utah on a “smart” energy grid, where meters would give home owners up to the second read outs of how much energy they’ve used, and how their energy consumption rises or drops.

“It helps people control their own energy use, and I think the state could be much more progressive in making a more progressive power grid,” he said.

Overall, Briscoe said that he will fight to make the legislature more accountable — both to the public through supporting the creation of an independent Ethics Commission, and to the process of government itself.

To illustrate this point, he mentioned the State Legislature’s refusal to consider one of Johnson’s most discussed bills — legislation that would extend housing and employment protections to all gay and transgender Utahns. The bill did not make it out of legislative committees each time Johnson ran it. In the absence of a statewide law, individual cities and counties are passing similar ordinances of their own. In response, some Republican legislators threatened to pass legislation that would have nullified these efforts

“Shouldn’t those cities be allowed to do that?” asked Briscoe. “If Orem doesn’t want one [for example], they can be a hold out. But why should the state government come in and nanny cities that want to be progressive?”

Visit Joel Briscoe’s campaign at votebriscoe.com.

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