Utah Legislature will boast record number of women

FILE - This Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, photo, shows the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The incoming Utah Legislature will include a record number of women, though the state still lags behind the national average.

When the legislative session begins in late January, 25 of the 104 members will be women, The Salt Lake Tribune reported this week. That accounts for 24 percent — the highest portion in state history, surpassing the previous high of 23 percent in 2002. Women accounted for 20 percent of the state Legislature in 2017 and 2018.

While the increase is being hailed as progress, Utah still lags behind the national average of 28 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The surge in Utah mirrors a nationwide trend as an increasing number of women run and win public office. Nevada has become the first state to have a majority female Legislature.

Many women are getting involved because of their discomfort with President Donald Trump, said Pat Jones, CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute in Utah and a former Democratic state lawmaker.

Many of the female lawmakers in Utah lean left, with 16 of the 25 women being Democrats.

“I think a lot of women feel like it is now time for them to get involved because there’s this huge sense of responsibility that if they don’t do it, it’s not going to happen,” Jones said. “They’re very worried about the direction that our country is going.”

The lack of Republican female lawmakers is concerning because most of the women will belong to the minority party in conservative Utah, said Erin Jemison, who works with Real Women Run, a Utah nonpartisan group that is trying to increase the number of women in politics.

“What we really want to see is … the other major party have more women in the pipeline,” Jemison said.

Marsha Judkins, a newly elected Republican from Provo, isn’t sure why more women aren’t running as Republicans.

“I know that the Republican Party is seen as more traditional in some ways with the values and relationships between men and women, and maybe that is a little discouraging or women don’t think about (running) as much,” Judkins said. “But I don’t think there’s any kind of organized effort to suppress women.”

Among the new female lawmakers is Suzanne Harrison, a Democrat and doctor who will represent the Sandy area and part of Draper.

“Political office was not on my radar 10 years ago,” Harrison said. “But I found that the issues that really matter to my kids and my community and the families in my community were not getting the focus that I felt they needed in the Legislature.”

Many of the women say their experience as mothers, including spending time in classrooms and doctor’s offices, allows them to understand how government decisions affect their children.

“Women are used to seeing a bigger picture and considering the domino effect the decisions have on many people — especially the family and how that affects society,” said Melissa Garff Ballard, a House Republican from North Salt Lake. “And we, in general, listen first. Not always. But I think women tend to do that in understanding people’s needs.”

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