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Sparks fly between Lee, Handy as District 16 Utah House race winds down

By Tim Vandenack - | Nov 3, 2022
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From left, the hopefuls for the District 16 seat in the Utah House: Republicans Trevor Lee and Stephen Handy and Libertarian Brent Zimmerman. Lee is endorsed by the Davis County Republican Party while Handy is waging a write-in bid.
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A sign for District 16 Utah House hopeful Trevor Lee, photographed in Layton on Nov. 1, 2022.
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A sign for District 16 Utah House hopeful Steve Handy, photographed in Layton on Nov. 1, 2022.

LAYTON — The sparks are flying in the District 16 Utah House race in Davis County, a contest that has stood out this cycle.

It’s not typical to see the incumbent vying as a write-in hopeful for the seat he or she holds. That’s the case though, with Steve Handy, the six-term Republican incumbent, vying against Trevor Lee, the official GOP-endorsed hopeful for the post, which covers much of Layton.

Along the way, with two GOPers competiting against each other in the general election, the Davis County Republican Party has been forced to go on the record to state its explicit support for Lee. Two former GOP U.S. House hopefuls, among others, have also chimed in– Andrew Badger for Lee and Bob Stevenson, a Davis County commissioner, for Handy.

Lee — who’s come under fire in particular for his views and comments about the LGBTQ community —  is expressing confidence as Election Day looms next Tuesday, saying he’ll be surprised if he doesn’t win by at least a 20-percentage-point margin.

“We have had an amazing response, speaking to the different voters in the area,” said Lee, who’s emphasized his conservative outlook and politics. “Really, people just want change. They want someone to be more conservative here in the district.”

Handy, for his part, is also upbeat, though waging a write-in campaign can be an uphill battle. Handy lost to Lee, seeking office for the first time, in the Davis County Republican Party convention on March 26, spurring his write-in effort.

“We feel on my campaign a lot of momentum. We feel a lot of support,” said Handy, who’s emphasized his long-standing roots in the community and civic involvement. “A write-in is a high bar. It’s a tough thing. But we’ve done everything we can to get our message out and now the voters are deciding and it will be what it will be.”

A Libertarian candidate is also vying, Brent Zimmerman, and he said all the controversy has raised the profile of the District 16 race. “It’s getting more attention. People are asking questions, which is good,” he said.

The backdrop to it all — the cause for the sparks — are controversial and disparaging comments and tweets by Lee, particularly toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. Lee’s use of a disparaging term for transgender people during an April podcast prompted backlash from some and prodded Handy to try the write-in route, concerned Lee’s outlook didn’t mesh with District 16 constituents.

Then last September, news emerged of several Tweets by Lee, since deleted, offering a harsh take on the LGBTQ community. Equality Utah, an LGBTQ advocacy group, lamented the “vile and extreme bigotry” it said Lee displayed while Handy warned against marginalizing “any segment of the community.” Lee said he didn’t know the term he used for transgender people was offensive and broadly defended the remarks about the LGBTQ community as reflective of his support for “the traditional family.”

He addressed the issue in a guest opinion piece published Thursday in the Standard-Examiner online.

“I bear no ill will toward any individual regardless of sexual or gender preference. All are children of God and worthy of respect. But when any special interest group advances its political agenda to gain political power, the game changes,” Lee wrote. “I have long opposed all leftist political agendas — not just gay and transgender groups — and I have no plans to end my opposition.”

That hasn’t been the end of it. Stevenson, who unsuccessfully vied for the 1st District U.S. House race in 2020, sent out a letter to voters lauding Handy’s “hard work, integrity, open-mindedness.” He also wrote that Lee’s “political philosophies are extreme” and that Lee had been “censured” by the Davis County Republican Party.

Soon after his remarks about transgender people late last April, the party issued a crticial statement on its Facebook page aimed at Lee, which apparently gave rise to Stevenson’s use of the word “censured.”

The party “unequivocally condemns the transphobic comments made recently by House District 16 candidate, Trevor Lee. Lee’s words do not represent the attitude or beliefs of our party, our members, or our community,” reads the party statement from last spring, since removed from its Facebook page.

Despite that statement, party leaders issued another statement on the party’s Facebook page on Oct. 29 in apparent response to Stevenson’s letter saying they had censured no one. “There have been no formal censures of any candidate — Trevor Lee, or otherwise — in the 2022 election cycle,” reads the post.

Likewise, Badger, an unsuccessful candidate for the 1st District U.S. House seat this year, wrote a letter to the Standard-Examiner, blasting Stevenson’s use of the word “censured” as a lie and defending Lee. “It’s time for a new generation of conservative leaders to step up. Simply put, business as usual in Salt Lake is not cutting it,” Badger wrote in his letter, published online on Thursday.

Yet another flare-up occurred last Tuesday when the Davis County Republican Party posted a message on Facebook encouraging Republicans to cast their ballots for Lee. That prompted a poster, an apparent Lee foe, to post a screenshot of a May 6 tweet by Lee in which he seems to voice support for euthanizing the elderly.

Lee says the tweet has been taken out of context. In fact, he said he was facetiously voicing support for euthanization to hammer home his pro-life views — that just as euthanizing the elderly is unacceptable, so is abortion.

Lee’s and Zimmerman’s names appear on the ballots of District 16 voters. Handy supporters must write his name on a blank line on the ballot below the two other hopefuls’ names. Ballots are due next Tuesday and, if sent by mail, must be postmarked by Monday.

Another hopeful, Steve Fershtut, had been running as a write-in candidate, but he was disqualified because he didn’t file campaign finance reports as required by state law.

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