Within the boundaries of Utah’s 8th Senate district are the cities of Cottonwood Heights, Midvale, most of Murray, and a sliver of Holladay. Unlike most districts in the state the demographics of the 8th district essentially make it a toss-up between Republicans and Democrats and both candidates feel they have a shot at victory.
Republican Brian Shiozawa is an emergency room physician and currently works at St. Marks Hospital. He’s never served in an elected office but during his career he has served on numerous boards and governing bodies including working on the Governor’s health care reform task force, a subject he’s made into one of his campaigns biggest priorities.
“Healthcare, education, jobs and our economy. Those have been the pillars of my platform and my campaign throughout this election process,” he says.
Democratic candidate Josie Valdez on the other hand is a retired government worker who spent the better part of three decades working at the U.S. Small Business Administration. And while she’s never served in an elected office either, she’s spent much of her life around politics. She’s worked with numerous community organizations and was former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson’s director of diversity. She’s also married to state representative Mark Wheatley and helped run all of his campaigns. She says the intermingling of professional and personal has helped shape who she is and what she stands for.
“I run my life from the point of view that every individual has a responsibility to make their families strong, but then move on and make their communities strong,” she says.
Valdez names economic vitality, education, and the environment as her top priorities.
One thing both candidates agree on is the need to increase education funding. Although it’s not their first choice, neither is opposed to raising taxes to do it.
“Personally I think any legislature who says that they would not raise taxes without considering the needs of the people has to reconsider that position," Shiozawa says. "Let’s do what’s right for our people and then we’ll deal with the finances.”
Valdez believes the problem with education funding lies with the control Republicans currently have in both chambers of the state legislature. She says ideas from Democratic members aren’t taken seriously.
“We are a majority republican state but we have to keep looking at creative and innovative ideas and really work towards putting our money where our mouth is and really bringing in more dollars into the classrooms,” she says.
Ross Romero, the Senate Minority Leader in last year’s legislative session, says winning this race is very important for the Democratic caucus. In 2011, Republican lawmakers altered political boundaries through redistricting. Romero’s district was reworked so that he would face incumbent Democratic Senator Pat Jones if he chose to run again. Instead he ran for Salt Lake County Mayor and lost during the county convention to fellow former Senator Ben McAdams. Still, Romero is concerned that if Valdez loses this race the Democrats could potentially hold only 5 of 29 seats in the Senate, the lowest number they’ve had in more than two decades.
“The House lost one member through redistricting; the Senate lost one member through redistricting on the Democratic side. Those in and of themselves bring about challenges and you put on top of that less voices and new bodies and it makes it challenging,” Romero says.
Regardless of who wins, the new Senator will face some very difficult decisions next year, including whether or not Utah will expand its Medicaid program to include many more who need coverage.
Valdez says she’s undecided on the issue, but she doesn’t want Utah to miss out on federal dollars that would come in to the state if lawmakers choose to expand the program.
“There are millions of dollars at stake in terms of implementing the Affordable Care Act, which the Utah Medical Association itself has already said, ‘It’s a good idea we need to accept those dollars.’ I think we need to take a look at that whole idea," Valdez says.
Shiozawa has worked first hand with the Medicaid program. He says before even considering an expansion the state should look at ways to cut costs and make the current operation more efficient.
“I think we can use it smarter. I think we can do it better and I have some great ideas on how we can expand the utilization, the access, of our current community clinics and keep our cost down,” he says.
“I don’t oppose our state standing up for itself, after all, we ought to do that, that’s our right," he says. "But let’s look at this from a practical standpoint and let’s look at our priorities.”
Valdez says while she likes the idea of potentially adding a revenue source, she sees this move as more of a power play. She proposes that instead of going after all the lands that it should be done on a case by case basis.
“We have to discuss which one of those are best for development and which are best to keep open lands so that we can have recreation and beautiful open spaces for our children,” she says.
The differences between Valdez and Shiozawa are often subtle. But both candidates hope that those contrasts will be enough to sway voters in their favor on election day.