SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s newest lawmaker in the state Legislature, formally picked just three days before the start of the 2021 session, is quickly adapting.
Newly minted Utah Rep. Rosemary Lesser of Ogden, picked to fill the District 10 spot following the Dec. 30 death of Rep. LaWanna Shurtliff, says she faces a “steep learning curve” in her new role as a legislator. Having never before vied for office, this is her first time acting as a public official.
She’s got help, though — legislative staffers have been teaching her the nuts and bolts of the bureaucratic process. She missed orientation for freshman lawmakers elected last November.
Likewise, fellow lawmakers, including members of the Utah House Democratic Caucus, have reached out, and even House Speaker Brad Wilson, a Republican, offered congratulatory remarks. “The collegial nature of the legislature has really been quite uplifting to me,” said the Ogden Democrat.
Lesser was picked on Jan. 16 by District 10 Democratic Party delegates to take over from Shurtliff after a whirlwind campaign, only days before the Jan. 19 launch of the legislative session. Shurtliff, who had been reelected to the post last November, died after a battle with pneumonia.
Now, the legislative newcomer, a recently retired obstetrician-gynecologist, finds herself in the thick of being a lawmaker — attending committee hearings, meeting with constituent groups and more. She’s even crafted legislative proposals. Notably, Lesser senses broad consensus among Utah lawmakers at this early stage for a “significant increase” in education spending. The session is set to end March 5.
But specific issues aside, a lot of her time has been spent meeting with District 10 stakeholders, getting up to speed on their issues and concerns, Lesser said. Shurtliff, honored in a resolution passed by the Utah House and Senate on the first day of the session, had served in the District 10 post from 1999-2008 and again from 2019 until her death. She had deep connections in Weber County and at the Utah Capitol.
“I’m actually learning a lot more about the community,” Lesser told the Standard-Examiner, about a week into the new session. District 10 covers parts of southern Ogden and South Ogden.
She’s making it a point to attend hearings and other legislative matters in person when she can, but has been using online platforms like Zoom to meet with others as well. Indeed, the surge in use of virtual meetings because of COVID-19 has been “the silver lining” of the pandemic, making it easier and more efficient, in some ways, to circulate and reach out.
Lesser, who describes herself as a “pragmatic Democrat,” has been active in the Utah and Weber County Democratic parties. She was an ardent backer of U.S. presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg during the Democratic Party primary season last year and campaigned for him in Utah before he suspended his campaign.
Beyond politics, though, she said she hopes to tap her expertise as a retired doctor in addressing health-related issues. She’s a member of the House Health and Human Services Committee. And as the only Democrat in Weber County’s legislative delegation and as a member of the political minority in a deep red state, she noted connections with Republicans. Alluding to the State of the State address last week by Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, she noted they have many shared values, including support for equity in education appropriations.
Not all legislative proposals are “change-the-world” measures, Lesser said. One of the measures she’s put forward is a bill calling for changes in how those who lack a permanent address can get state identity cards. Another proposal would make it easier to transfer medical prescriptions from one pharmacy lacking the medicine sought by a patient to another.