Democrat Jenny Wilson faces perhaps the highest hurdle of anyone running for office in Utah this year: she wants to defeat Republican Mitt Romney and flip Utah’s open Senate seat.
While not as well-known as Romney, Wilson still has political experience: she’s served a decade on the Salt Lake County Council and was chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, in the 1990s.
Immigration was one of the big issues she worked on as a congressional aide, and it has become a central topic in this year’s midterm elections. Wilson was one of the thousands of Utahns who rallied at the State Capitol on June 30, joining a national march to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies. There, she met with voters, including Kylee Gonzalez and her 19-month-old daughter Camila, who was eating a cookie in her stroller.
“My husband is of Mexican descent, so our daughter is also of Mexican descent,” Gonzalez said. “We care a lot about families because of our religion. We strongly believe that families should be kept together and protected.”
Surrounded by people angry and concerned by the Trump administration’s "zero-tolerance" policy that led to family separation at the border, Wilson was in her element. A small crowd gathered as she talked about why she opposes the president’s policies.
“As much as I first and foremost want these families reunited, I don’t want this to be America,” Wilson told the group. “This isn’t Utah, this isn’t America. We have always been strong as a country because of our moral leadership and we need to get that back.”
Wilson's interest in discussing immigration isn't just talk for rallies. Last week she challenged Romney to an immigration debate but hasn’t received a response yet.
— Jenny Wilson for UT (@JennyWilsonUT) July 5, 2018
“Mitt is happy to participate in a debate sanctioned by the Utah Debate Commission,” the Romney campaign said in a statement.
Wilson said she “strongly disagrees” with Romney on immigration.
“Mitt Romney has basically claimed that he’s to the right of Trump on this issue,” she said. “I don’t know how you can possibly be a compassionate person and be to the right of Trump.”
Democrats around the country have suggested abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal law enforcement agency known as ICE. Wilson isn't sure about that.
“I believe in reform and I think abolishing an agency that has a good intent is not the right step,” she said. "I think the idea of ICE being ineffective relates to the fact that we're not, as a nation, handling our immigration issues in the right way.”
Wilson faces long odds against Romney in the Senate race. But, like her Republican opponent, politics runs in the family. Her father Ted Wilson was elected Mayor of Salt Lake City when she was 10. In many ways, Wilson is a moderate Democrat like her father.
“I have a deep respect for my dad’s era,” Wilson said. “He was an elected official in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a Democrat who worked well with Republicans.”
In other ways, Wilson said she is progressive.
“I think young people are more open to things that I’ve supported for some time: women’s issues and women’s advancement, LGBTQ fairness,” she said. “But I’m also someone who understands the texture of this state.”
In her decade on the County Council, Wilson, who has two teenage sons, said she's learned the art of compromise.
“Local governments get things done,” she said. “In the state of Utah, which is obviously a very Republican-dominated state, it’s important to work with the other side. That’s what we’re missing in Washington D.C.”
Before joining the County Council, Wilson was a volunteer director for the 2002 Winter Olympics. That’s also where she developed a working relationship with Romney, who was CEO of the Olympic Organizing Committee. She said their relationship wasn't "buddy-buddy, one-on-one," but she knows him.
“I think he’s a great guy and has a great family," she said. "But I don’t think in 2019, Romney going to the U.S. Senate is in the best interest of Utah."
Romney has raised millions of dollars for his Senate bid and enjoys wide popularity in Utah as a former presidential candidate. But Wilson says she has some smaller advantages.
“I think my strength compared to Mitt Romney is I get this state. I’m from this state. I’m raising two kids in this state."
“And,” she said, “I will answer [voters’] questions. I will answer [voters’] questions with policy solutions. I did it on the tax bill. I've done it on budget-related matters. I've proposed specifics on immigration and we haven't seen any direct action from him.”
When Wilson first jumped in the race, she thought she’d be running against Orrin Hatch, who’s since announced that after 42 years in the Senate, he’ll retire at the end of the year.
Polls, however, favor the former GOP presidential nominee. But Wilson said she has been campaigning around the state to get her name out there.