Of all the victories conservatives are crowing about this week, none seem as welcome as that of Utah’s Mia Love, the first black Republican woman ever to be elected to Congress. She’s been the subject of fawning profiles and officially dubbed a “rock star” by Michelle Malkin and other right-wing pundits. But Mia Love is a rock star mostly to people who don’t live in Utah.
To a person like me, born and raised in Utah, Love’s victory is a symbol of our trend toward nationalized elections. Her issues are generic, conservative hobby horses—defund Obamacare, abolish the Department of Education, etc.—the opposite of Tip O’Neill’s old adage about all politics being local. She has adopted precisely one Utah-specific platform point from state conservatives—the demand that the federal government turn over to the state all the land it owns in Utah, a long-running and hopeless quest that is deeply opposed by the state’s environmentalists. Beyond that, Love, a persona preternaturally well suited for Fox News, has an embarrassingly weak grasp of policy—particularly as it relates to her adopted home state.
Love’s first congressional campaign consisted mainly of tea party talking points. In August 2012, when John McCain came to Salt Lake City to campaign on her behalf, his appearance at a town hall meeting had the unexpected effect of highlighting Love’s lack of depth beyond mantras such as “audit the Fed.” Peppered with questions about Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s health care proposals, which include steep cuts to Medicaid, and how they might affect disabled children in the state, Love was emphatic in her insistence that “anyone who has said to you or anyone else that I’m going to pull the rug out from under you…is absolutely lying to you.” But she offered so few specifics that McCain frequently had to step in and save her. At one point, she even suggested a health care proposal that already had been enacted as part of Obamacare.
She was more refined during her second run—clearly she has been advised to avoid the more inflammatory positions she took against Democrat Jim Matheson back in 2012. For example, she’s no longer talking much about eliminating school lunch and student loan programs—the latter being a bit of a problem for someone who in 2012 was still paying off thousands in student loans herself. She’s also put some distance between her campaign and the tea party, despite regular assists from former Florida Rep. Allen West, another fiery black tea party conservative—who, incidentally, didn’t last more than one term in Congress.
A former actress, Love learned her lines well for 2014, but that won’t necessarily translate into success in Congress. Before winning the 861 votes that made her the part-time mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, back in 2009, she’d been a flight attendant with Broadway aspirations. Her first congressional campaign reflected that background, as well as some of her political judgment and regard for where she lives.
Love has made a big show of her concern for the Second Amendment and her fondness for packing heat—issues that sell well with both Utah and national conservatives. But the summer of 2012 saw a rash of costly wildfires in Utah, including a big one in Saratoga Springs that required the evacuation of 9,000 of Love’s fellow residents. It was one of at least 20 fires attributed to outdoor target shooters, whom Utah’s Republican governor was desperately trying to persuade to use indoor ranges instead. Not long after the governor made his appeal, Love made a big appearance on the Today Show, where she showed off her shooting skills—outside, in the dry brush.
Born in Brooklyn, Love first relocated to Connecticut before moving to Saratoga Springs in 1998 after converting to Mormonism. I spent some time in Saratoga Springs in 2012, and was struck by what a transient place it was. A new suburb of Salt Lake City, it didn’t even exist until 1997, and everyone I met there had come from somewhere else. Few were Utah natives, and next to none of them had heard of Love, even though she’d been their mayor or a city councilwoman for several years. Even Saratoga Springs’ congressional district was brand new, having been gerrymandered in 2012 by a state Legislature intent on ousting Matheson, the state’s lone Democrat, from his perch in Congress. In some ways, it was the perfect place to launch a congressional career. Being the mayor of Saratoga Springs was like being the mayor of nowhere—or everywhere, depending on your perspective.
The national media has played up a narrative about Love’s entrée into politics that the Salt Lake Tribune dubbed “The War of the Midges.” It goes like this: Love and her husband bought a home in a new development on the edge of Utah Lake. Soon after, Love was shocked to discover that when the wind changed, bugs—midges, to be precise—swarmed her house and those of her neighbors. In 2002, Love says, neighbors implored her to help them convince the developer to do something about the bugs, and so she did, prompting a regular pesticide treatment. Love 1, Midges 0.
This story might sound endearing to an outsider, perhaps. It struck me as a sign that Love didn’t know much about her adopted state. Here’s why: She bought a house on the edge of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the Western United States. It’s a very shallow lake, partly protected wetlands, and an important stopover for migratory birds. But among longtime Utahns like my dad, the lake is also known as “a dump. I wouldn’t go in there,” he told me.
My dad remembers Utah Lake as a place where towns dumped raw sewage up until the late 1960s, making it unsafe for swimming and recreation. It’s gotten somewhat better since then, but its reputation hasn’t really improved much. The lake often looks pretty green and gross because it’s shallow, and it’s still fairly polluted from a steel mill (now closed) and agricultural runoff. The lake is subject to frequent blooms of toxic blue-green algae—better known as “pond scum”—creating what state officials describe as “water the color of car radiator antifreeze.” You don’t want to swim in that stuff. In October, a local resident’s dog died after doing so.
Now, you don’t have to be an ecologist to recognize that lakes, especially shallow, swampy, polluted ones, are buggy places. Utah Lake’s excessive midge population is partly related to that pollution, which in turn is exacerbated by developments like Love’s. Even so, buying a house on the shores of Utah Lake and being shocked by bugs is like buying a condo above a bar and then complaining about the noise. Love’s response was telling, though: Rather than focus her political activism on cleaning up the lake, or the environment more generally, she just wanted to kill the bugs and move on.
Ditto for the air pollution. From the hills of Saratoga Springs, residents have an unobstructed view of the brown haze that hovers over Salt Lake City, which has some of the nation’s worst air pollution and grapples regularly with “toxic fog” during the winter. It looked like Beijing in January, when Utahns were actually protesting about the problem at the state capitol—something seldom seen in this conservative state. Utah’s air quality is a top concern these days, and a bipartisan one. Did Love look across the valley at the smog, contemplate the high rates of asthma among local kids, and join Utah Moms for Clean Air? No, she ran for Congress on a platform that included slashing the EPA—the one federal agency that can help Utah combat air pollution.
All of these things might seem like nitpicking about a soon-to-be congresswoman who’s just made history. But consider the guy she’s replacing. Rep. Jim Matheson, who decided not to run after narrowly beating Love in a nasty 2012 race, is a Utah native with politics in his blood. His father, Scott Matheson, was a popular governor who died from cancer caused by open-air nuclear testing in southern Utah—a particularly awful part of the state’s heritage that to this day informs some of its residents’ environmental sentiments and distrust of government.
Matheson is a former businessman with a Harvard degree in government and an MBA from UCLA. But after college, he spent a few years as a lobbyist for the environmental group that later became Friends of the Earth. And while his record on the environment wasn’t good enough to satisfy purists, it wasn’t bad for a Utah congressman. Among other things, he worked with former Republican Sen. Robert Bennett to designate a southern Utah waterway as a “wild and scenic river,” conferring significant protections on a large swath of the state’s great outdoors.
Public land management is a huge issue for Utah’s congressional delegation, as nearly 60 percent of the state is owned by the federal government and made up of national parks such as Bryce Canyon and Zion. Utah is also home to a gas and oil development boom taking place next to those spectacular monuments. With Love, Utah has elected a woman who doesn’t seem to have the least bit of understanding of the environment in her own town, much less the rest of the state. Like tea partiers everywhere, she hates Common Core, but who knows how she feels about fracking near Canyonlands National Park or using federal funds for moose management along I-80.
That’s why Love’s election may be historic, and the Republican Party might benefit from her joining its old white guy ranks, but whether the people of Utah will be better off truly remains to be seen.