Liberty, Justice and Representation for All

By Courtland Milloy
Friday, November 24, 2006

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah

Welcome to a state that is as Western and conservative and Republican as D.C. is Eastern and liberal and Democratic. And because they are perceived as political polar opposites, the stage is now set for what could be a historic development: District residents, after years of being disenfranchised, could finally win a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, but only if the political balance of power is maintained by giving another vote to Utah, which has three.

During a recent drive through the Beehive State (motto: "Industry and Thrift"), I could see why people think Utah and D.C. are so different. Utah certainly looks like a red state, with its red-cliff mountains highlighting the skyline like some fiery logo. On the other hand, I see the District as having a blue tint, derived in part from a mighty Potomac River that sparkles like quartzite under sunny skies.

Adding to the distinction, I confess to having searched in vain for a black barbershop in Provo, Utah. The black population in Utah is 0.9 percent, compared with 57 percent in the District. This is not to say Provo doesn't have a black barbershop; I just didn't have all day to hunt for it.

On the other hand, I found that Utah and D.C. have an awful lot in common. Did you know, for instance, that the Places Rated Almanac ranks D.C. as the second-best overall place to live in the United States -- behind Salt Lake City? One reason for the high regard is that residents of Utah and the District have a common interest in church and family. Hold on, you say: Doesn't the District have one of the highest divorce rates and the largest percentage of unwed mothers in the country? Yes. But Utah, according to FBI crime statistics, ranks near the top in domestic violence and, according to Google Trends, is No. 1 for hits on Internet porn sites. In other words, nobody's perfect.

During the last presidential election, Utah gave President Bush the widest margin of victory of any state; D.C. gave John Kerry the widest. But that measure of political difference conceals a deeper social similarity.

"Utah is Republican, in part, because of the party's emphasis on individualism and the sense that you need your gun and your space," Richard Davis, professor of political science at Brigham Young University, told me. "Many people in Utah believe that Washington does not understand what it's like to live in the West and is oppressive in its attempt to govern an area that it doesn't know or care about."

I dare say that a lot of people in Southeast Washington hold the same views, especially when it comes to feeling oppressed and needing a gun.

"There is also a sense that Utah doesn't benefit from social programs," Davis said. "So when Republicans talk about cutting taxes and welfare queens, that resonates." But, again, the reality is not so different from what it is in the District. Says Davis: "Many Utahans live below the poverty level and rely on government programs. They use federal education grants and loans, Medicare and Social Security. But they perceive that they are somehow not in need of programs and that government should 'leave me alone and let me do what I want.' "

If more voters were informed enough to cast ballots based on accurate assessments of their self-interest, we might find that Utah and the District both have the heart of a Democrat and a Republican soul.

Recognition of our common interests would take the focus off petty political calculations perhaps long enough for everyone to see the injustice of denying nearly 600,000 District residents a vote in Congress.

Even now, the Republican-controlled Utah legislature is considering a redistricting scheme that would pimp the deal with the District so that Utah gets two additional Republican votes in the House instead of the one agreed upon. Congressional Democrats in Congress would rather kill the District's voting rights act than allow Republicans to pull off such a stunt. That would be a shame.

Here's how I balance the scales: Utah has magnificent snow-capped mountains, but they are more than matched by the majesty of the Mall. The Utah state fish has a mean-sounding name: Bonneville cutthroat trout. But we've got the snakehead (it adopted us), and it really is mean. True, Salt Lake City does have a J Street; D.C. does not. But according to the State Resources and Handbook Guide, Salt Lake City consumes more Jell-O per capita than any other city, while D.C. drinks the most wine. Score one for D.C.

Utah already has three votes in the House; now give one to the District (motto: "Justice for All").

E-mail:milloyc@washpost.com


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