There's a Reason He's the Highest-Ranking Dem in Utah

There's a Reason He's the Highest-Ranking Dem in Utah

By Libby Coleman


Because a Mormon Democrat is like a unicorn — and Ben McAdams could use it to his advantage.  

By Libby Coleman

It was 2009. Just months before, Proposition 8, which declared in California that marriage was between a man and a woman, had passed. But in Utah, the progressive Salt Lake City Mayor intended to keep a campaign promise: antidiscrimination ordinances for LGBT citizens, orders that disallowed housing and job inequality based on sexuality. The legislature, far more conservative than the progressive urban pocket of Salt Lake City, readied to fight. Tensions rose between LGBT people and the Church of the Latter-Day Saints

At the time, Ben McAdams, now the highest-ranking Democrat in Utah, was adviser to the Salt Lake City mayor. He knew that if the legislature overturned the prospective pro-LGBT ordinances, the divide would grow. He asked for a few months to win the legislature’s support, buying time to travel the state. He met with the powerful conservative State Senator Chris Buttars, plus prominent conservative lobbying groups in Utah and LDS attorneys. He argued for local rights so Salt Lake City could make its own governing laws and for equality under the law. When the legislature convened to vote on the LGBT ordinances, the first person to testify in favor was a representative of the LDS church. Sen. Buttars was won over. The ordinances stayed. In 2015, they were adopted statewide.

 Ben’s going to go as far as he possibly can. I could see him running for governor, Congress, U.S. Senate.

—Republican State Senator Brian Shiozawa

A door-to-door campaign was nothing new to McAdams. The 42-year-old Mormon Democrat traces his political ideology to his mission trip to Brazil in the mid-’90s. Seeing stark poverty, he resolved to use his newly bleeding heart to effect progressive change. Now twice elected as Salt Lake County mayor, which includes Salt Lake City and its surrounding regions, he’s in charge of 1.1 million people and a $1-billion-plus budget. McAdams won handily with around 60 percent of the vote this past year, a rare victory for the left in a state where Democrats constitute only 13 of 75 seats in the State House. This has some in the state thinking that he has a real shot at being the first Democratic senator in Utah since the 1970s or the first Democratic governor since the 1980s. “Ben’s going to go as far as he possibly can,” Republican State Senator Brian Shiozawa says. “I could see him running for governor, Congress, U.S. Senate. There’s no doubt about that.” 

While McAdams’ party ties might indicate a liberal upbringing, they’re actually a break from his childhood. He hails from the conservative county north of Salt Lake City, where he describes the people as “salt of the earth.” His mom was a teacher and his dad a used-car salesman often shifting between jobs. His family, with six kids, was low- to middle-income, he says, with his mom providing a more stable financial stream than his father. One of his elder sisters brought McAdams along to canvass for a Democratic Senate campaign when he was still in high school. That campaign lost — the typical result for Dems; Mormons are the most heavily Republican-leaning religious group in the U.S., according to a 2016 Pew report. Senator Harry Reid is the only high-ranking Mormon Democrat of note in recent memory. That’s because, theologically, Mormons are more of a Glenn Beck variety: fiscally conservative, pro-life and in favor of religious liberty. 

After his mission in Brazil, McAdams resumed his studies at a local college, Weber State College, and finished an associate’s degree before transferring up to the University of Utah as a Pell Grant recipient. He served as president of the College Democrats; his best friend was the University’s Republican Club president. McAdams maintained a conservative lifestyle, though, commuting from home as he studied engineering until senior year, when he swapped to political science. He was already prepared as he’d scored an internship (copies; phone calls) under the Bill Clinton White House. “I witnessed incredible people,” he says.

During that internship, he first kissed his now-wife, who was working in Utah at the time after her mission. They married, despite a brief breakup. Law school at Columbia brought him to New York. She transferred to Columbia Law too to finish her degree. Once they got serious about raising a family, they moved back to Utah; his wife clerked for the Utah Supreme Court while he practiced at a law firm working on securities and mergers and acquisitions. Ralph Becker was elected Salt Lake City mayor in 2007 and asked if McAdams would join his administration. 

McAdams hasn’t shied away from the seeming contradiction of his left-of-center identity alongside his LDS roots. In 2012, he ran with a billboard campaign boasting, “Yeah, he’s different,” because he was a Democrat who emphasized fiscal conservatism (which has proven true in his record toward budgets without tax increases) and Republican allies. Democrats like McAdams may be rare in Utah, but they’re effective, according to Jessica Preece, a political scientist at Brigham Young University. The faction that wins intraparty conversations is highly progressive, while the other part, which McAdams represents, is more “pragmatic” but less visible. McAdams might be the model Democrat in Utah moving forward: In the latest election, self-described moderates favored McAdams 64 percent to 22 percent, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Still, winning the mayorship of Salt Lake County is different from winning a statewide election. After all, only two of 29 counties in Utah went blue for Clinton in 2016. Victory would depend on picking the right election, with the right Republican opponent (likely an extreme conservative), political scientist Quin Monson says. 

Even so, McAdams’ messaging may be on point from a faith perspective. He explains his pro-refugee and immigrant platform by invoking a Utah founding story. “I think about the experience of Mormon pioneers seeking safety and freedom of religion and seeking prosperity,” he says. Refugees are the “modern-day pioneers.” He thinks and turns to a senior adviser: He should add it to a speech, shouldn’t he?