Last Wednesday I had my first taste of politics as it actually happens.
After years of discussing politics in high school debate competitions, tracking every move on a given piece of legislation, dissecting the possible implications of a certain bill, reading Politico articles about D.C. policymakers from the remote location of my desk at home, I finally met the people I’d been reading about: Senators and Representatives, this time not of the U.S. Congress but of the Utah State Legislature.
Fifth grade field trips to the Capitol aside, I knew relatively little about the politics of my home state; almost all of my research in debate centered on the U.S. House and Senate. Names like Boehner, Reid and Murray were more familiar to me than Lockhart, Okerlund and Arent.
Even beyond the differences between state and federal legislatures, I had no idea what to expect from the congresspeople I would meet in terms of how they acted, what work they did, and how they did it. Politics had meant to me shadowy figures of men and women meeting behind closed doors in marble buildings, engaging in acts with almost mystical names – horsetrading, filibustering, gerrymandering – in whose hands the well-being of thousands of constituents lay.
Last Wednesday, though, the looming hulk of politics shrunk down to a human size and donned a human face.
I had lunch with some members of the ACLU, sat in on the House Democratic Caucus meeting, and listened to the Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee. Through the day, I watched as my preconceptions about political involvement were upended, recreated and refined.
I heard discussions about an incredible range of issues, from municipal taxes to rape kit processing to federal land management, and it completely blew me away because at a time when Congress is best known for what it doesn’t get done, it shocked me that so much movement was happening behind the scenes and that many, if not most, legislators were working on multiple bills at a time on radically different topics.
Perhaps most surprising to me was the degree of familiarity that legislators and advocacy groups had with each other. Despite the sizable number of organizations that were involved in the political process (more than I had known even existed in Utah, let alone directly influenced legislators), most legislators knew the names, faces, and goals of the leaders of the various organizations. These close relationships between advocacy groups and politicians made me realize that the political sphere is not an impenetrable space governed only by electoral interests and, well, politics, but instead one that offers real opportunities for the public’s voice to be heard.
Though this trip to the Utah Capitol was only the first of hopefully many excursions, the experience has given key context to my understanding of the people behind the lawmaking process and has allowed me a brief insight into what exactly goes on in those marble buildings.
This post may sound overly optimistic about Utah’s ability to pass meaningful reform – and it likely is. Despite the force of organizations like Alliance for a Better UTAH, partisanship and party interests often win out, especially in a state with an overwhelmingly Republican legislature. Regardless, the fact that pathways to change exist, even if they may be weak, should be a small comfort for policymakers, activists and ordinary citizens alike.
Claire is a summer intern for Alliance for a Better UTAH. She is a senior at Rowland Hall High School.