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Holladay Journal

Kathleen Riebe thinks Utahns are ‘ready to reset the tone’

Sep 08, 2023 11:21AM ● By Zak Sonntag

Kathleen Riebe, a Cottonwood Heights resident, moved to Utah 33 years ago from her native New York. (Photo courtesy Kathleen Riebe)

Before Kathleen Riebe had become a public school teacher and school board member, and long before she secured a seat in the Utah Senate, she was a police dispatcher and red-card-carrying wildland firefighter—a daringly adventurous role that seems to capture something essential about the woman now running in the special election to represent Utah’s 2nd Congressional District in Washington.

“Why wouldn't you want to provide a public service that’s that cool. We got to fly in a helicopter and be in this beautiful national park. It just kind of resonated with my lifestyle,” she told the City Journals.

“Being the only female and meeting people from another state was definitely character building. It makes serving in the Senate not so daunting when you think you could’ve been sent into a forest fire,” she said. 

Riebe, a Cottonwood Heights resident, moved to Utah 33 years ago from her native New York, and has made a reputation in the Beehive State as an effective minority party legislator, shepherding efforts to bring emergency services and broadband internet access to rural communities and expand education across the state while empowering local school boards.

As a result she’s earned an impressive base of supporters, seen in June when Riebe swept up her party’s primary nomination with 86% of the vote.

Even still, the district leans red, putting Riebe, a Democrat, on an uphill slope. Nonetheless, her campaign sees the current political atmosphere as highly unpredictable, and therefore an opportunity to gain ground. Riebe believes she will appeal to the growing number of voters interested in a moderate way forward at a moment when many communities are mired in polarization. 

“I think about what people across the state have been asking me, and they've been asking for more moderation. They've been asking for people to step away from wedge issues,” she said.

Riebe says the district’s residents are frustrated with the state’s direction and vexed by the current leadership’s actions on issues like gerrymandering; she believes the strength of her policy can prevail over the affiliation of her party, and that Utahns are reevaluating what they want from representatives.

“I think people are really ready to reset the tone, and maybe hit the pause button on some of the things that we've been doing here in the state,” she said, adding that her approach to legislating privileges local control and flexibility. “When you try to come up with solutions, you need to build elasticity into them, so they are not so rigid that you can't carve out room for everyone’s needs.”

Also in her favor, the special election happens during an off-year due to the unanticipated resignation of current Rep. Chris Stewart, who cited his wife’s health concerns: some political strategists think the off-year dynamic will play well for a minority party contender like Riebe.

Nonetheless, they have not forgotten that District 2 Rep. Stewart beat the last Democratic challenger by 25 points in 2022.

Beyond running blue in a red district, Riebe must also navigate the challenges of a deeply gerrymandered map, which lumps together an urban/rural demographic from Salt Lake to St. George. 

Riebe, however, has made a name as an ally to both urban and rural Utahns with legislative efforts to expand broadband access with the aim of educational equity as communities have transitioned to remote learning, while simultaneously helping expand telehealth. 

“When I think about all these communities, they're all looking for affordable housing. They're all looking for health care. They're all looking for education. We think we're so different, but we're really the same. We're all trying to put food on the table. We're all trying to pay our bills, and raise our kids,” she said.

In these ways, perhaps, her campaign has a leg up, but when it comes to money she’s distinctly behind. 

“I’m a very different candidate from my peers because I can’t loan my campaign hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said, referring to her opponents' more cushioned coffers. 

Yet she feels that what she lacks in money she can make up in the sweat equity of good ole fashion retail politicking—mingling from behind a booth at the farmers market, say, or shaking hands with voters at the Labor Day Festival in Parowan.

She also feels confident about her ability to make her case in the upcoming October debate. 

“I love a good debate,” she said. “As a sixth-grade school teacher I was debating all the time.” λ