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No ‘working class’ in Utah Legislature? Lawmakers beg to differ — but are there enough?


No ‘working class’ in Utah Legislature? Lawmakers beg to differ — but are there enough?

Mar 28, 2024 | 8:07 am ET
By Katie McKellar
No ‘working class’ in Utah Legislature? Lawmakers beg to differ — but are there enough?
Legislators and spectators stand for a prayer in the House Chamber at the start of the day’s proceedings at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

When a recent Utah News Dispatch social media post named Utah as one of 10 states without any “working-class” lawmakers, according to a Duke University and Loyola University Chicago study, it raised eyebrows — and hackles. 

What about Rep. Tyler Clancy who works as a police officer? Or Rep. Doug Welton, a high school teacher? Or Sen. Kathleen Riebe, also a teacher? Just to name three. 

The Utah House GOP went on the defensive and posted a thread on X contesting the claim. 

“Rep. Scott Chew would like a word,” read the post featuring a photo of the legislator, who co-owns a fourth-generation family ranch — one of the largest ranches in Utah. “Same with the homemakers, former electricians and plumbers, retired teachers, and many more in the Utah House.” 

Stateline, a nonprofit news service that analyzes trends in state policy and a partner with Utah News Dispatch in the States Newsroom network, reported on the study, which defined “working class” as people who currently or last worked in manual labor (like construction workers), the service industry (like restaurant servers), or clerical work (like receptionists). Professions like teachers, police officers, firefighters, contractors, and farm owners were separated into different categories. 

Working-class people rarely have a seat ‘at the legislative table’ in state capitols

Why? Because roughly 50% of the U.S. labor force falls into that “working class” definition, said one of the study’s authors, Nick Carnes, political science professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. 

Carnes said he and Eric Hansen, political scientist at Loyola University Chicago, were “trying to identify jobs that require less formal training, less capital” to get into the workforce — but also offer “less security over time.” These jobs also tend to be paid hourly, not by salary. 

Definition of “working class” can vary from person to person, Carnes acknowledged, adding: “Our goal as researchers is never, ever to disparage or minimize the importance of any job.” 

Rather, their research is aimed at understanding the barriers that keep many everyday Americans from holding political office and shaping the laws that impact their lives. Even if the “working class” definition is expanded to include professions like teachers or police officers, people in those roles continue to hit similar obstacles. 

“It’s hard to take time off work. It’s hard to become independently wealthy. And that means it’s harder for you to run for office, Carnes said. 

Regardless of profession, “running for elected office is a major personal sacrifice for everyone who does it,” he added. “It takes so much of your time and your life away from your job, your family. … But the reason we started studying working-class people is that the barrier tends to be even more burdensome when you’re living paycheck to paycheck.” 

Utah News Dispatch interviewed five Utah lawmakers that could be considered middle-class or working class under a broader definition: a police officer, two teachers, a rancher, and an administrative employee for the Utah Department of Transportation. Each had differing opinions of how the working class should be defined — but they agreed there are barriers for regular Utahns to serve in the Legislature, and that indeed impacts who holds power and what laws do or don’t get passed. 

Utah News Dispatch also reviewed conflict of interest disclosure statements of Utah’s 104 lawmakers (75 in the House and 29 in the Senate) to analyze what professions make up the Utah Legislature. While legislators work in a wide range of fields, a vast majority of Utah lawmakers — about 90 — are business owners, executives, attorneys, or have worked in higher-paying industries like medical, finance, banking, investments and real estate. 

That analysis found, roughly: 

  • 36% are business owners or work in finance or banking.
  • 20% work in or own real estate companies.
  • 15% have backgrounds in education. While some work as teachers, others work in administration.
  • 14% are lawyers.
  • 13% work in consulting, policy or marketing.
  • 7% are doctors, physicians or nurses.
  • 6% are farmers or ranchers.
  • 5% consider themselves “homemakers” or stay-at-home figures.
  • 3% work in tech.
  • 2% are police.

These figures add up to more than 100% because many lawmakers wear multiple hats. For example, while Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo, currently works as an administrative director for the University of Utah, he lists eight other entities in his conflict of interest disclosure form that he has owned, including several real estate companies. And while Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is an attorney, he’s also a law professor at Brigham Young University. 

While the Utah Legislature has a mix of professions, it’s weighted toward business owners, executives, finance, investors and real estate. Some lawmakers have climbed up the ladder and built a successful business, while others benefit from generational wealth. 

It’s also worth noting that two of the Utah Legislature’s most powerful players — Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper — have backgrounds and successful businesses in real estate development.

The concept of “working class” is complex — but some legislators interviewed by the Dispatch agree that the Utah Legislature would benefit from a more balanced mix of perspectives, especially people who don’t have as much control over their own schedules and rely on every paycheck. 

Is the Utah Legislature ‘working class’ friendly?

With no lawmakers that fit the bill for the Duke/Loyola University Chicago study, the Dispatch sought out lawmakers who could fall under an expanded definition of “working class.” That included two teachers. One’s a Republican. The other is a Democrat. 

Welton, R-Payson, teaches Japanese and philosophy and coaches debate at Salem Hills High School in Nebo School District. Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, is a technology specialist and coach for Granite School District, educating both teachers and kids on how to navigate data and computer programs. 

Doug Welton
Utah Rep. Doug Welton, R-Payson, on the House floor (Courtesy of Utah House).

Both must take unpaid leave during the Utah Legislature’s 45-day session. They estimate they’ve lost about a year’s worth toward retirement because of their elected positions. 

“I lose a fourth of a year of retirement every year I’m in the Legislature,” Welton said. “I just finished four sessions and so I have to work a year longer to get my full retirement.” 

Riebe estimated the same for herself. “That’s a big, big challenge,” she said. “These are big sacrifices we’re making because we believe in education.”

While they do get a stipend each legislative session, both Riebe and Welton said it’s not enough to make up what they lose in unpaid hours, plus they have to take time in the evenings, for example, to catch up on work. 

In 2023, Welton made a salary of about $64,116 (not including benefits) as a teacher for Nebo School District, and $20,464 total from the state for his time as a legislator, according to Utah’s transparency website. Riebe made a salary of $70,230, plus $26,833 for her time as a legislator.

“I’m like the cheapest lobbyist you can find for education, and yet I’m losing money to do this,” said Riebe, who is an outspoken advocate for public education funding and critic of Republican lawmakers’ moves in recent years to funnel more money toward private school scholarships or vouchers.

Legislators get compensated $293.55 per day for all legislative days, plus they can receive per diem pay for travel, lodging and meals, according to the Legislative Compensation Commission

Welton said balancing his work as a teacher and a legislator is “no cake walk” — and even harder than he expected. He estimated he misses out on about $5,000 to $10,000 to serve in the Legislature. 

Riebe said it’s “exhausting” and frustrating to track “minute-by-minute” the hours she spends as a legislator and balance those with her day job. However, she said she “totally relies” on her check, noting her husband is retired and she’s responsible for keeping her family insured and financially secure. 

“If I lost my job … I don’t know if I’d make ends meet,” she said. “I’d have to sell my house. That’s the difference between knowing when you are living paycheck to paycheck.” 

Does the Utah Legislature need more working-class people?

To Riebe, “working class” should be defined as someone who depends on their paycheck month to month or relies on a job to “make ends meet” — and that makes up “a small percentage” of Utah lawmakers, she said. 

She called the makeup of the Utah Legislature “so business heavy” and teeming with generational wealth. She said that absolutely impacts the type of legislation that gets prioritized and passed. Riebe added it’s ironic when a lawmaker who comes from a line of intergenerational wealth makes policies that tell lower-income Utahns to “pull yourself up from your bootstraps.”  

No ‘working class’ in Utah Legislature? Lawmakers beg to differ — but are there enough?
Utah Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, chats with student visitors on the Senate floor on March 1, 2024 (Courtesy of Utah Senate).

“A lot of the legislation that we create is policies that provide opportunities for people who already feel security in their lives,” she said, pointing out that the Republican-controlled Legislature prioritizes a business-friendly environment while not funding things like after-school programs or child care. “I mean, these policies in themselves hurt working-class families.” 

While Welton said there is a mix of professions in the Utah Legislature, he said he agreed “it’d be good to have a little bit more balance.” That’s easier said than done, though, he said, noting “there’s not a lot of employers who are willing to let you leave for 45 days.” 

“If you own your own business, it’s easier to do. If you own your own law firm or you’re an executive, you’ve got some people who can keep business going,” he said. “That’s not a benefit the working class generally has. A law enforcement officer can’t do that. … A teacher can’t do that.”

If Utahns want to elect more people who work “in the trenches,” as Welton put it, it’s something to keep in mind as they decide who they vote for. But he acknowledged it’s a tough issue when it’s hard for working-class or middle-class people to run for office to begin with. 

“I don’t know what the answer is here,” he said, but he wondered if the Legislature could find a way to “at least hold harmless public employees” when it comes to retirement or pay. 

Riebe said some employers will happily work with lawmakers — while other employers, like cities and school districts — often don’t offer the same flexibility. Oftentimes it depends on the circumstances, with some lawmakers finding comfortable resolutions while others struggle.

Riebe thinks lawmakers should go further and more robustly pay legislators who need it — and pave the way for more working-class people to obtain elected office. “Start funding your legislators,” she said, but she’s skeptical if anything will change. “I don’t think the ‘haves’ have the will to let the ‘have nots’ start creating laws. Why would the people sitting at the top want to give any kind of benefits to the people trying to make it in?”

Are there other ways for working-class people to engage?

Clancy, R-Provo, a police officer for the Provo City Police Department, had a more optimistic outlook. He also said it’s not easy balancing his police work with his legislative duties, but he said it’s a “marathon” that he signed up for. 

“You have to work extra hard when you have two jobs,” he said. 

In 2023, Clancy made a salary of $53,288 at Provo City, not including wages. He also made $17,226 for his legislative services — including expenses and per diem, according to Utah’s transparency website

Tyler Clancy
Rep. Tyler Clancy, R-Provo, poses for a photo with his wife Leah Clancy after he was awarded the Provo City Police Department’s “Medal of Distinction” in spring of 2023 (Courtesy of Tyler Clancy).

Clancy said he thinks the Legislature includes a fair variety of voices, working class or not. 

“There’s always a narrative out there that, you know, the Legislature is (full) of all these supervillain developers that just want to steamroll every tree and build a nine-story apartment complex,” Clancy said, but he argued lawmakers’ perspectives are more nuanced than that. 

He said while the Legislature may be more heavily weighted toward professions that pay more and allow more flexibility for people to serve in a part-time legislature, that’s essentially the reality of the system. 

“I’m kind of like, ‘well, that’s kind of how life is,’” Clancy said. “If you have more resources and more at your fingertips, whatever you do is going to be easier. Obviously this is no different.”

However, he also noted there are other ways for working-class Utahns to engage in the political system, if not at the legislative level, maybe at even the neighborhood level. He noted he and Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-West Jordan, started the Blue Collar Caucus, an opportunity for lawmakers to meet with blue collar workers to learn about their trades. 

“I think it’s balanced. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, you can add a valuable voice. I don’t think that defines you,” Clancy said. “My biggest goal would be how do we get more working-class families to get engaged in the process — not even necessarily running, but just having their voices heard. And that’s really what we try to do with the Blue Collar Caucus.” 

Matthews works as an office administrator who provides support in a variety of different roles for the maintenance division of the Utah Department of Transportation. She said her day starts at 4 a.m. when the alarm clock goes off for her husband, who’s a union pipefitter and works in construction. While he goes to work, she gets her own work done in the early hours before her kids (ages 7 and 8) wake up, then she gets them out the door to school.

No ‘working class’ in Utah Legislature? Lawmakers beg to differ — but are there enough?
Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-West Jordan, takes a selfie while attending an equipment training day at the Utah Department of Transportation’s West Valley City maintenance station in May 2023 (Courtesy of Ashlee Matthews).

Then she’ll head to work, where some of her coworkers call her “UDOT mom.” She helps schedule meetings for engineers, responds to public complaints about potholes, and some days she attends “equipment rodeos” where UDOT employees learn about and practice on heavy equipment. 

Matthews also has to take an unpaid leave of absence from her job for her time in the Legislature, and when she returns she has to catch up on all the work that she misses. Because of how pay periods are staggered after the legislative session ends, she has to go 11 weeks without pay — “which is very hard,” she said. 

Last year Matthews took in a total of roughly $72,309 in wages and expenses from UDOT and the state for her various roles, including her legislative duties. 

“I know that not everybody is fortunate like me, not everybody has two people working to help pay the bills,” Matthews said. However, she noted it’s especially hard for families with kids and parents who both need to work — or single parents that might not have the resources to pay for child care or lacking a family support system to help. 

“That’s probably why we don’t see more working parents, single parents, and we don’t see more people that work jobs where you have to answer to somebody else serving in the Legislature,” Matthews said. “If all of the stars don’t align perfectly, those are really big obstacles that keep you from being able to serve.” 

Is owning a ranch ‘working class’?

Chew, R-Jensen — one of the “working-class” lawmakers House Republicans highlighted on social media — owns and manages a massive ranch in eastern Utah near Dinosaur National Monument in Jensen, Utah. He owns it alongside his three brothers, and together with their four sons they manage about 800 cows and 3,000 sheep on about 200,000 acres, which includes private and permitted ground in Utah and Colorado. 

The ranch has been passed down through four generations of the Chew family, he said. While he manages the business, Chew said he also does plenty of manual labor, from mucking manure out of semitrailers hauling cattle, to fixing fences, to wrestling calves — though as he gets older he tries to delegate more physical labor to his sons and nephews. 

Utah Rep. Scott Chew (middle), poses for a photo with his two sons Ty Chew (left) and Carson Chew (right).
Utah Rep. Scott Chew (middle), poses for a photo with his two sons Ty Chew (left) and Carson Chew (right) on their family ranch in Jensen, Utah near Dinosaur National Monument in November, 2021. (Courtesy of Scott Chew).

While the ranch’s day-to-day operations are mostly run by family members, Chew said they do hire a handful of sheep herders depending on the time of year. 

Chew’s definition of “working class?” Someone who “earns a living by sweating,” Chew said, though he added some people could be considered working class if they have a “hard labor” job — maybe not necessarily manual labor, but a job that requires long hours and skills. 

While Chew is a business owner and rancher that does not fall into the Duke study’s definition of “working class,” he argued he brings a valuable perspective to the Utah Legislature that represents rural Utah — and someone who knows what it’s like to work in agriculture. 

“I might be the boss, but I can do and do every job I ask my employees or my sons to do,” Chew said. 

He also agreed perhaps the Utah Legislature could benefit from more working-class legislators — “but I don’t know that very many working-class people have the ability. I mean, take myself. If my sons weren’t home, I couldn’t sacrifice the time to do it. I’m really glad for the opportunity because I bring a perspective to the (House) floor that wouldn’t be there if I wasn’t somebody that was actually making a living off of the land.” 

However, Chew also noted many lawmakers have worked their way up to where they are now, and he said they don’t forget that experience. 

“Everybody has a unique purpose for being there,” he said. 

He also argued that regardless of lawmakers’ professions, they still have to rely on their families and make sacrifices. 

“No matter what, they have to rely on their family support,” he said, though he acknowledged that’s true for “some of us probably more so than others.”