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Sean Hemmersmeier St. George Spectrum & Daily News Published January 26, 2022

There are multiple candidates running to defeat Utah’s two-term Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Lee in 2022, but one candidate is doing it one mile at a time.

Ally Isom has been traveling to all parts of Utah as a part of her “Walk a Mile” listening tour, which pledges to visit 250 different cities in the state and walk a mile with local residents and officials at each stop. Isom told The Spectrum the listening tour provided an on-the-ground opportunity to hear what residents are concerned about and to tailor her campaign to respond to those concerns. 

“I really felt strongly like I needed to spend time with Utahns, everyday Utahns, and get to know what’s top of mind and in their hearts,” Isom said. 

The tour took her to southern Utah to walk in multiple communities, including Apple Valley, Santa Clara and La Verkin. Isom still needs to visit many cities across the state to reach her goal of walking a mile in 250 different places but she recently launched a set of eight core policy principles that she says will guide her campaign based on the first 70 or so stops of her walking tour.

These eight principles take on a wide range of issues including supporting families, businesses and innovation in Utah. But Isom said one topic that kept coming up repeatedly was the idea that Utahns feel unrepresented.

“People feel unseen and unheard all over the state,” she said. “Priority number one, I’m going to build bridges, establish conversations, decrease the proximity between the elector and the electorate and create the dialogue that needs to happen.”

Isom said conservative values are still popular in this heavily Republican state but in recent years the messaging of the Republican Party could be better.

“I find people are receptive. They are ready for the Republican Party to become a united party with a single voice and focus,” she said. “I think what I hear people tell me is we’re tired of the partisan culture wars and the personalities dividing us.”

A ‘Republican Renaissance’

This sentiment has Isom — who describes herself as a “classic conservative” — calling for a “Republican Renaissance” where Republican values like fiscal restraints, limited government, low taxes and high accountability are protected while emerging and concerning societal issues are tackled from a conservative perspective. 

“I think just as significant and serious to me as the national debt is the discussion around what are we doing about climate and the environment?” she said. “And why have we allowed the Democrats to frame that dialogue?”

Isom says her professional background in government, community relations and technology would give her the ability to bring innovative conservative solutions to the table as a senator. 

Isom’s Background 

U.S. Senate Candidate Ally Isom meets with residents of La Verkin Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

Isom is a 38-year Utah resident who has been around Utah politics for decades. She’s worked for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, served a brief appointment on the Kaysville city council, and took a job as director of communications and deputy chief of staff for former Gov. Gary Herbert.

She worked under the former governor for about three years before taking a job as a spokesperson for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where she helped facilitate the church’s responses on thorny issues revolving around race, women’s issues and the LGBTQ+ community. Working within the LDS Church and the governor’s office gave her experience in fostering collaboration between different groups, Isom said, arguing those skills would be vital for a U.S. Senator. 

“I’m used to being in the room where things feel foreign and uncomfortable,” she said. “And then I watch this beautiful conversation evolve and durable solutions are created to that dialogue.”

Isom left working for the church in 2020 to take a position as the chief strategy and marketing officer for EVOQ Nano, a tech company focused on operating in the pharmaceutical and medical industry. Her work there involved dealing with federal regulatory processes and provided a first-hand experience seeing the constraints businesses face in order to stay open, something she said separates her from other candidates. 

“I know what it’s like to try to hit the bottom line and make payroll and keep suppliers happy and generate new customers and rebrand a company,” she said. “Those are experiences that none of my opponents can speak to.”

The opponents

Sen. Mike Lee speaks with fellow republicans at the Dixie Convention Center Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020.

Utah has been represented in the senate by Lee since 2010,  and in that time the senator has garnered a reputation for being a staunch conservative with a penchant for headline-grabbing actions. 

He blocked legislation to create the National Museum of the American Latino and his opposition to government spending helped lead to repeated threats to shut down the federal government. Most recently, Lee did this over a federal policy regarding a national vaccine mandate.

“My problem with his voting record is when he is the weird outlier, when he does things that are there to seek the spotlight,” Isom said. “That’s where I disagree with Mike. It’s when an issue is exploited because it has political value or media value.” 

Isom has stated she would probably vote with Lee “97% of the time.” The 3% where she doesn’t agree with Lee is when he is among a small minority fighting against popular legislation, Isom said. Some examples were his vote against authorizing funding benefits for people with ALS — the final senate vote was 96-1 in favor — and his vote against a bill that would fund medical treatment of 9/11 victims for decades, which passed the Senate by a vote of 97-2.

These actions and Lee’s reputation haven’t killed his chances of being elected, though, and he remains popular among Utah Republicans. In a November 2021 Deseret News / Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, a majority of Utah voters — 53% — indicated they would vote for Lee in the primary over the two Republican challengers, Isom and Becky Edwards, a former state legislator.

Lee also faces some big-name challengers from outside the Republican Party. Evan McMullin, a presidential candidate in 2016, is running as a conservative independent, while Kael Weston, a former congressional candidate who ran against Rep. Chris Stewart in 2020, is running as a Democrat.

Isom said she is focused on winning the primary first, since the political data in Utah shows whatever Republican runs in the general election as the heavy favorite. 

“I respect anyone willing to step up and engage in the discussion, but the data tell me Utah wants a classic conservative and I’m the only one who can beat Mike Lee,” Isom said. 

Lee also holds a significant financial advantage over the Republican challengers to his seat. 

His 2021 campaign finance reports showed Lee with just under $4.3 million in campaign cash, compared to Edwards with around $725,000 and Isom with roughly $415,000, according to data from the Federal Election Commission. Isom acknowledged these financial differences can be challenging to overcome but said her strategy isn’t to match the resources of other candidates but rather to have enough resources to share her message. 

“I have no illusions about what it takes to beat an incumbent. I know this is uphill, and I know it’s narrow, but there is a way, and I’ve got to share my message and get it out,” she said. “I’ve got to raise enough money to tell my story, I don’t have to match it. But I have to raise enough money to tell my story.”

Taking on Trump

Isom’s story includes a brief departure from the Republican Party over its support of former President Donald Trump in which she said she felt like the party left her behind. This stance resulted in fliers attacking Isom’s stance in June of 2021. Lee has been a supporter of Trump after developing a working relationship with him, and even vetted fraudulent claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election from Trump’s team. Lee ultimately voted to certify the 2020 election results. 

On this conduct, which has been called out by other candidates in the senate race, Isom said she thinks Lee did “60% of the right thing” by looking into these claims. 

“I’m just disappointed he’s stayed silent about it,” she said. “The folks who elected him deserve an honest explanation. We can handle the truth.”

But Isom said she doesn’t think this election — which is a midterm — shouldn’t be about how much or when a candidate supported the former president, saying most Utahns don’t talk to her about Trump. 

“As I walk this state, the only time I get asked about Donald Trump is from reporters,” she said. “The people of this state care about a lot of other things much more. And I reject that’s a litmus test for good public service.”

Order in the Republic

The U.S. Capitol.

Part of public service that should be taken on by a U.S. Senator is to “reform failing mechanisms,” according to Isom’s policy page, which includes instituting term limits for elected officials, reforming the filibuster, ensuring election integrity and expediting legal immigration. 

The idea of term limits is a common point in this senate election since Lee has previously supported a two-term limit for senators but still chose to run for a third term in 2022. Lee said he wouldn’t put a limit on himself but would abide by any term limit if it was in the Constitution. Isom argued that without term limits politicians can lose touch with their roots. 

“The funny thing about term limits, I’ve never met an incumbent who supports them. D.C. changes some people, in that they forget the people back home, and they grow far too fond of a camera and a microphone,” she said. 

One area where both Utah senators have gotten a lot of camera time is the recent battle between Democrats and Republicans over voting laws and the Senate filibuster, which bars certain items from getting a debate on the Senate floor unless 60 senators approve. Lee strongly opposed any changes to the filibuster, saying it was a strong check of power in the federal government. 

However, in the past Lee has supported changes to the filibuster. In 2017, Lee along with many other Republicans voted to change the senate process for confirming a Supreme Court Justice to allow a simple majority of 51 senators to confirm someone to a lifelong appointment. 

Isom said she thinks both political parties are to blame over the recent debate and fervor over the filibuster and the current system doesn’t serve the public. 

“Good solutions never get debated. The process gets weaponized,” Isom said. “D.C. delivers more made-for-TV drama, counting on its value for fundraising back home, without ever going to the floor and being on record. So we get brinkmanship, not leadership. Leaders owe us honest debate, on the floor, in real-time. No more phoning it in.” 

With the recent controversy concerning new voting laws and claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent, states and people across the nation are looking into voting regulations. In a statement to 2News KUTV, Utah’s Lt. Go. Deidre Henderson said any legislation changing election laws in Utah would “undermine” the voting process. 

Isom said she thinks it’s a positive thing for the nation and local leaders to evaluate voting. 

“Our nation is having a healthy discussion about election integrity and local leaders are taking a good look at processes from A to Z. ‘Trust but verify’ is a solid principle,” she said. 

But this point is just one of many Isom is focused on. She also wants to support families and economic innovation, according to her policy principles. One main principle applies to the future of southern Utah, Stewardship.

Water & Federal Lands

U.S. Senate Candidate Ally Isom meets with residents of La Verkin Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

The policy point of Stewardship focuses on improving air quality as well as finding “durable solutions” to issues concerning land and water since southern Utah is facing a historically-severe drought and has large swaths of land owned by the federal government.

With water, Isom said she believes there is “no silver bullet” in solving issues concerning the drought but that certain realities around water need to be widely accepted. 

“The reality is, there’s a limited resource, and we’re expecting more humans to come and consume it,” she said. “So we have a responsibility to do all the things right. We have a responsibility to conserve. We have a responsibility to think of new ways to use our water resources wisely.”

In her campaign across the state, Isom said the different regions of Utah are looking into their own solutions to address water issues and growth. But she fears without a united effort from state leadership on addressing water issues, local areas will be pitted against each other and compete for water. 

This fear is already happening in Southwest Utah. In Iron County, a controversial water project called the Pine Valley Pipeline is moving forward. The proposal would involve building a 70-mile pipeline to take water from Beaver County and bring it to the Cedar City area.

“I just feel like we’ve got these individual solutions going, and it needs a large conversation to be durable,” Isom said. 

Durable solutions should also be applied to what entity gets to control land in Utah and points to pendulum-like monument status bestowed to the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah as a non-durable solution. The protected status swung back and forth for the 1.3 million-acre monument since it was first created by former President Barack Obama in late 2016. It was reduced by Trump in 2017 and fully restored by President Joe Biden in 2021. 

Biden’s decision to restore Bears Ears was met with rebuke from Utah’s congressional delegation and the governor. They said the Biden administration doesn’t address the root of the problem around Bears Ears and they want a better solution than a presidential monument designation to protect the land. Isom said she agrees.

“I’m a believer that those who govern best are those closest to the people. So my objective would be to ensure it’s locally driven,” she said. “That said, we have a responsibility for balanced solutions.”

Isom acknowledged the tension between Utah and the federal government is an “age-old tension point” but argued the two sides shouldn’t vilify each other.

Sean Hemmersmeier covers local government, growth and development in Southwestern Utah. Follow on Twitter @seanhemmers34. Our work depends on subscribers so if you want more coverage on these issues you can subscribe here: thespectrum.com/subscribe