On April 15, Howard Stephenson will retire from his 44 years of service to the Utah Taxpayers Association – the longest tenure of any employee since the Association’s founding in 1922. In his final issues writing this corner, he looks back and forward. 

My experience serving in the Utah Senate for 26 years first began with the Utah Taxpayers Association Board of Directors giving me permission to run for the Senate in a district which did not have an incumbent. The district was the ‘leftovers’ of redistricting following the 1990 Census. The district started from Cedar Hills in Utah County and weaved through Alpine, Highland, Draper, Sandy, White City and finally ending on Center Street in Midvale.

The Board made certain from the outset if I was elected, that ethically I was not expected to vote for the positions of the Association (my 26 year Taxpayers Legislative Scorecard showed that some years I did not have a perfect score). When seeking approval to run, I unwisely offered to use my vacation time to partially offset the days I would be fulfilling legislative duties. Thankfully, board member Larry Givan convinced the rest of the Board that my offer was out of the question, that my young family would already pay a high price for my public service without losing vacation time with their dad. Little did I realize then the costs and benefits my family would experience from my service. From this first hand experience, I continue to hold all legislators and their families in the highest regard.  

Filing for Public Office

I filed to run for the open senate seat on the first day, hoping to fend off others.  On the morning of the filing deadline, I had no GOP opponent.  I was unaware that a ten-year incumbent in the House had been courted by the UEA teachers union and the Utah Public Employees Association to run for the senate seat to prevent a taxpayer advocate from being elected. He had previously filed for re-election to his House seat in Utah County and went into the Lt. Governor’s office in the Capitol around 2:30 that afternoon to file for the Senate seat.  He was told the law at the time would require him to cancel his filing for the House seat in person in Provo, and then come back to the Capitol to file for the senate seat before 5:00 p.m. I happened to be in the Capitol Rotunda when he rushed to the Lt. Governor’s office at 4:55, barely making the filing deadline.  

I received a lot of help from politically active people in my district and in the party. I reached out to Colorado State Senator Bill Owens who was also Executive Director of the Colorado Petroleum Association on how to juggle conflicts as head of a lobbying organization while serving in the Senate.  He gave me so much encouragement and took time to provide tips and tricks of getting elected and how to win support of party delegates. I incorporated his ideas in my campaigning.  Bill Owens later served two terms as Governor of Colorado.

The State 1992 GOP Convention at the Weber County Fairgrounds would be the place where my Senate District Caucus vote would be held, the same convention through which Governor Mike Leavitt and U.S. Senator Bob Bennett would be nominated.

Learning a Hard Lesson about Character

In my effort to meet with every delegate I planned to meet two very different groups of delegates on the same day. My wife Julie came with me as she felt a duty to support her candidate husband.  The first meeting involved delegates who were working together to promote school choice and education accountability.  The second group included public school administrators and classroom teachers who were aligned with the UEA teachers union. When asked my position on school choice and school accountability I crafted my answers to be most acceptable to each audience, as I thought any good salesman would do. After leaving the final meeting and getting in the car to drive home I was feeling pretty good about my performance.  But before starting the car engine, I sensed something was wrong and turned to Julie and asked why so gloomy? At first, I thought someone had said something to offend her. Sadly, I learned her disappointment was in me. Through tears, she told me she had always respected my integrity and the consistency through which I approached challenges. But she said if I couldn’t give the same answer with the same passion to each group, she didn’t want me to continue the campaign.  She said she didn’t want politics to change me from the good man she married. I could not have been more ashamed of myself, especially having left the meetings so pleased with my performance as a clever candidate. I humbly promised Julie that day that I would campaign and, if elected, serve with integrity and be consistent in my positions regardless of the audience.

How a Landslide Victory Felt Like a Loss

Rep. Mont Evans gave my nominating speech at the convention while former Speaker Glen Brown nominated my opponent saying that a lobbyist should not serve in the legislature. I had reached out to every one of more than one hundred delegates and proudly declared my conflict, pointing out that more than a dozen government employees and teachers served in the legislature in spite of their conflicts, so why shouldn’t there be one legislator whose conflict is advocating for taxpayers?  Having lobbied the legislature for 14 years I had learned how to count and figured in had 71% of the delegates, just barely more  than the 70% required at that time to avoid a primary ballot contest.  When the votes were counted I had 69.5% of the delegate vote. Two delegates who committed to me were so busy working on Joe Cannon’s U.S. Senate race that they never showed up in time to vote in my caucus. Despite winning at convention in a landslide, I now faced a brutal primary election.

I had to work harder than I could ever have imagined in trying to win the Primary election. I was disheartened one Saturday morning as I left the house to find locations for my campaign signs only to discover hundreds of my opponent’s signs all along the major streets in the district. The UEA and UPEA had kept their commitment to my opponent that they would do all that was necessary to make sure he won the election. He had an army of volunteers working for him and continually reminded voters of my conflict of interest.

I had promised Julie that I would not use the financial resources of our family to fund my election or my service in the legislature. So I was grateful for the many individuals and businesses who donated to my campaign, mostly without being asked. It was a long anxious summer of campaigning, preparing mailers and placing lawn signs but ultimately I won the primary with nearly 2/3 of the vote, having carried every precinct except two in my opponent’s neighborhood. Apparently, my full-time employment as a taxpayer advocate was a conflict voters accepted. Because the senate district was overwhelmingly Republican, I won the General Election easily.

The Perspective from Inside the Legislature

My swearing in on the first day of the 1993 legislative session was a very moving experience. The prayer, the Color Guard, the music and opening speeches had a whole new meaning in light of my new responsibility. The dignity and importance of the process was brought to bear on my mind and heart as never before. I also became aware of something I did not fully understand, even having previously lobbied the legislature for 14 years: Legislators are given amazing support from the staffs of four different support entities, Research & General Counsel, Fiscal Analyst, Auditor General, and the staffs of the House and Senate plus an intern for each legislator. No legislators are ever without support to accomplish their legislative goals. This is extremely important as legislators are bombarded on all sides by those seeking their time and attention.

However, all the support in the world doesn’t prevent the PTSD that results from an intense 45-day legislative session that tests the psychological health of all legislators who seriously invest themselves in achieving challenging legislative goals. In fact, Stan Lockhart, husband of the late Speaker Becky Lockhart tells of a legislative spouse event where Marriage & Family Relations Counselor Matt Townsend gave training to assist families to understand the legislators in their families.  Before the training, Townsend had spent time observing the legislators in action up close.  The observations from a trained professional led him to advise legislative spouses on how they and their families can effectively cope with the physical and emotional absence of their spouse and parent of their children. Because legislators are totally consumed by their legislative roles, if families want to cope with and support their distracted legislator during the 45 day session, Townsend said they should treat them with patience as though they were children with special needs. The conditions legislators face during the session are so intense and so far outside the norm of human day-to-day life, that those who experience it need to be temporarily treated with special care. Then, after the session, they can be treated as normal, functioning adults.

It wasn’t until I left the legislature that I realized that during each session I was in a sense, a slave, connected to a ball and chain.  Legislators don’t always realize how demanding or intense the session is because they are programmed every minute and the dopamine associated with the daily interactions and importance of the work, masks their lack of freedom.

The First Test of My Principles 

You’re supposed to represent the will of your district. All six mayors in my first term approached me to support an issue important to the League of Cities and Towns. I was uncomfortable with their request so I asked them what principle would demonstrate why I should support their request. They told me the principle was that they were mayors in my district and I was therefore obligated to vote for what they unanimously supported. This was the first serious test of my political character. Would I give in to pressure to vote for something which violated the principles I deeply held and on which I had campaigned? In the campaign I had told voters that they should only vote for me if they agree with the principles I have espoused, because that is what will guide my votes, not the opinion polls of the electorate in my senate district. Consequently, the mayors of my district were disappointed that I could not vote as they had requested.

Come On In, the Water’s Fine!

Two years after I was elected to the Senate, Utah AFL-CIO President Eddie Mayne told me he was considering a run for the Senate on the Democrat ticket, having seen how I was able to juggle my conflict of interest. He won his election and we served several sessions together. When he passed from lung cancer while in office, his wife Karen was appointed to fill his remaining term.  Since her appointment and multiple re-elections she has been one of the most effective Senators, based on bills passed, among other contributions. I often wonder if either of the Maynes would have decided to serve in the legislature if I hadn’t run, demonstrating to Eddie how a lobbyist could handle the conflict of interest.

Defending Against Biased Media

For years, political writers at the Salt Lake Tribune took every opportunity to engage in extremely biased and inaccurate reporting nearly every time I was mentioned in a story.  Although my Republican colleagues commiserated with me, and were glad it wasn’t them, they said there was nothing I could do but turn the other cheek, saying it’s unwise to pick a fight with those who buy paper by the ton and ink by the barrel. Then one day, out of the blue I got a call from a well-known Democrat attorney, Dan Berman whom I thought barely knew me.  He told me he was concerned about the way the Tribune had been unfairly treating me over the years.  He offered to be my attorney, pro bono, to get them to stop.  Somehow, he arranged a meeting with the Tribune Editor Jay Shelledy and political writers to review and evaluate the unfair journalism I had endured at their hands. It was an amazing meeting as I pulled article after article from a file and Mr. Berman explained the bias shown by the reporter.  Often, the editor would agree that the bias was unacceptable, that the reporter took a cheap shot. He reprimanded reporters and columnists about some of the articles in the presence of me and my attorney. Other times he would say the article was fair criticism, that I left myself open on that one. I don’t know what Mr. Berman said to the Tribune brass to get them to agree to the meeting, but for several years afterward I was treated fairly by the Tribune. I will be forever grateful for Dan Berman’s unsolicited kindness. 

Significant Legislation

There was so much that happened in my 26 years in the Utah Senate and the legislation that resulted is well preserved in legislative records available online. I will cover the significant tax related legislation in my last Corner in April. Some of the non-tax legislation I worked on include Utah’s #1 Dual Language Immersion program, Charter Schools, Statewide Online Education Program, the nation’s first Statewide Digital Teaching & Learning Masterplan, UPSTART home-based kindergarten readiness program which TED Global has identified as one of 8 Audacious Ideas that Can Change the World, the DREAM Act which allows undocumented high school graduates to attend college at in-state tuition rates, Paycheck Protection which ended the government subsidized PAC collection by public employee and teacher unions, raising government immunity caps, significantly expanding Utah’s unique POPS professional arts organizations, and unique iSEE world class science museum outreach into schools.

Bowing Out

I didn’t announce my retirement from the Senate until the end of the 2018 General Session, after the Motion to Adjourn Sine Die, so it was a surprise to most.  I had worked for 23 years to eliminate the sales taxes on business inputs that had a life of less than three years and SB233 finally crossed the finish line at 5:00 p.m. on the final day of the session, I was ready to end my 26 year run. 

I made the surprise announcement after midnight adjournment of the Senate and gave my parting comments of gratitude. The most touching comment that night came from Democrat Senator Jani Iwamoto who was very emotional about my announcement as she tearfully told me, “You can’t leave me, we haven’t finished our work!” She and I had worked together to chip away at the draconian practice of government immunity which protects government from responsibility for injury to innocent citizens.

No One Is Irreplaceable

I recall during my first legislative session Senate President Arnold Christensen telling senators that when we begin to think we’re irreplaceable, we should stick a fist in a bucket of water and pull it out quickly. He said the hole that is left is how much we will be missed.