Just before Christmas 2009, Democratic delegates from Utah’s Senate District 2 came together to perform a difficult task: pick a replacement to finish outgoing — and out — Sen. Scott McCoy’s term.
Following McCoy’s resignation in order to devote needed time to his law practice, a number of candidates contacted delegates for consideration. These included Arlyn Bradshaw who, like McCoy, is openly gay — and who is now the favorite in a race for Salt Lake County Council’s District 1 seat. In the end, however, the delegates chose Ben McAdams, an aide to Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker and a straight ally, to take over for McCoy.
Less than a year later, it’s time for McAdams to run on his own terms. This time, he’ll be doing so against Mel Nimer, an openly gay candidate from across the aisle who entered the race after McAdam’s original challenger failed to file her paperwork in time to run.
“This is my first time introducing myself to the voters,” said McAdams, taking QSaltLake’s interview while canvassing the neighborhoods in his heavily Democratic district. “I was disappointed when my previous opponent dropped out because I think I owe it to the district, and we deserve a race.”
McAdams comes to voters after a session where he had little time to debate gay- and transgender-rights issues. A compromise between pro-gay Democrats and Republican leadership tabled all such bills in order to save Salt Lake City’s gay and transgender-inclusive employment and housing nondiscrimination ordinances from bills seeking their cancellation. Still, he has been a strong advocate for this part of his constituency, having promised to take up McCoy’s bill that would give same-sex couples rights to sue in cases of a partner’s wrongful death. In this sense, both he and Nimer are of the same mind.
“It’s refreshing to have a Republican candidate who agrees with me on LGBT issues,” said McAdams who, like Nimer, promised to run a clean campaign that focused on the areas in which both men differ, rather than in attacking one another.
“This was the first time I’ve met him, but he seems like a great guy,” he said of his opponent. “We have a lot of mutual friends so I’d heard of him, and I look forward to getting to know him better as we go through the campaign. We agreed for the sake of the LGBT issues that we both care about that we’d keep it clean and make sure we’d finish the election with the good reputation we each had going in.”
“We shouldn’t’ cannibalize our own and we agreed not to do that,” he added.
Like Nimer, McAdams noted that budgeting, education and immigration would top his list of concerns during the race.
“It is an incredibly difficult year for the state budget,” he said, referring to the sluggish economy that has plagued every state in the Union. “My perspective is before we raise taxes, we need to understand this economy is no easier on tax payers than it is on government.”
When making state budget cuts, McAdams said that lawmakers need to ensure that “necessary social services for those who have been hit by the economic downturn” remain, such as the Meals on Wheels program for elderly residents as well as insurance coverage for children.
“Utah has ranked 50th in Medicaid access for kids, and that’s not good enough,” he said. ‘I don’t like tax increases and I want to stay away from that, but I think it’s important for the government to keep performing its essential functions. It’s going to depend on what we’re cutting. This is s a scale and you’ve got to balance both sides of the sale.”
Like Nimer, McAdams is also concerned about Utah’s education system and particularly in what he calls its decline in quality over the last two decades.
“It used to be that we could stack ‘em deep and teach ‘em cheap,” said the senator. But Utah’s increasingly diverse population — which includes several students for whom English is a second language — means that these days are over, he added.
“The state’s financial commitment to education has gone down significantly. We’re last in per-pupil spending, and that’s not good enough,” he said. “I feel strongly that we need to provide equal opportunity to anyone who needs to reach out and grab it.”
McAdams also said he feels Utah may go in the wrong direction on immigration issues. He is opposed to a bill proposed by Sen. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, that closely mirrors Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, which critics accused of encouraging racial profiling.
“He’s called it Arizona-light, but I’ve read the bill. There’s nothing light about it,” said McAdams. “Make no mistake: It’s unconstitutional and un-American.”
McAdams’ biggest objection to Sandstrom’s bill, he said, was that it would take away police and prosecutors’ right to “express discretion” in which illegal immigrants to pursue — such as those who are responsible for violent crime and drug trafficking rather than those who are abiding by the law.
In that vein, McAdams also said he would not support any resolutions in the Utah State Senate or the House in support of overturning a clause in the 14th Amendment that grants citizenship to children born within U.S. borders to immigrants who are here illegally.
“If we deny children who are born in the United States the right to citizenship that dates back to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, that would, in my mind, create a permanent under class in the United States — people with no citizenship in any country” who government would then deny “the opportunity to become contributing members of our society.”
“For me, it’s a consistent message: looking out for our minority community whether they’re sexual or ethnic minorities,” he continued. “We need to send a message and be a welcoming society. That’s what America was founded on, and that’s who we need to be.”
While Nimer and his supporters have argued that a gay and transgender-friendly Republican would get more done in the state’s conservative government than would a Democrat, McAdams countered that his ability to work with Republican lawmakers “being critical on some issues and working collaboratively on different issues” was more important.
“My distinct point of view is reflective of the district,” he said. “The district wants a counterpoint on many issues and in my short time in the Legislature, I believe I’ve offered that counterpoint.”
And although his district has wanted that counterpoint for decades (McAdams noted that it hadn’t been represented by a Republican in at least 35 years), the senator said he’s still not taking the election for granted.
“It means I’ll have to continue to work hard, and I should,” he said. “We should expect that of our elected officials.”