Sen. Karen Kwan is still adjusting to that new title, following her quick shift from the state house earlier this yearAug 10, 2023 02:34PM ● By Carl Fauver
Of course, we are all familiar with the pejorative definition of a “Karen”—some highfalutin, self-centered person, who seems to enjoy making life difficult for others, for no particularly good reason.
But anyone who’s worked with Karen Kwan on Utah’s Capitol Hill—or with the Karen she replaced in the state senate last winter, Karen Mayne—will tell you, these two Karens aren’t, well, “Karens.”
In the world of Utah politics, Kwan and Mayne are the underprivileged, the underdogs. Sure, sure, for starters, they are female. But more significantly, Karen and Karen are Democrats.
“In the last (state legislative) session, there were 14 Democrats in the Utah House, along with 61 Republicans,” Kwan said. “In my new body, the State Senate, I was one of six Democrats, along with 23 Republicans.”
If ever a Karen deserved to act like a “Karen”—put upon and in an unfair, uphill position—it would seem Kwan had that right. But despite her undisputed position of political underprivilege, the freshman senator is proud of year one in her new post.
“Even though we are in the minority, Democrats still get things done in the legislature,” Kwan added. “I stick to fixing problems. I’ve always been able to work with Republicans. We’re able to find common ground. The number of bills you get passed on Capitol Hill does not reflect how hard you are working. A couple of the bills I was going to introduce never were, because the issues were taken care of in other ways.”
Kwan had just returned from a family vacation last winter, when her political world was turned upside down. Fellow Karen, Mayne, had just been reelected to the Utah Senate a couple of months earlier—but chose to retire from her post, for health reasons.
“Karen (Mayne) and I were both reelected in November; I was all set to go, in my House 31 position,” Kwan said. “Then, just after returning from our holiday trip, Karen announced her retirement. That led to a whirlwind special election. I was one of about nine people who entered the race and the only candidate who was a current member of the legislature.”
Kwan says about 60 Democratic Party delegates cast ballots in the election. The vote was non-binding, as Gov. Spencer Cox would appoint Mayne’s replacement. But everyone expected him to do what he did—appoint the leading vote-getter.
“My first session in the Utah House was in 2017, so I had plenty of experience there,” Kwan said. “But now, suddenly, I was shifting literally as this year’s session began. Even now, with the session over, I am still learning some of the differences between the house and senate. Honestly, I’m still learning my exact senate district boundaries. It is, roughly, from 3500 South to 5400 South, and from the Jordan River to 5600 West. I know I used to have about 40,000 constituents (in House District 31), and I now have about 100,000 (Senate District 12) constituents.”
As she learned the ropes at the “other end” of the state capitol building last winter, Kwan says she had a lot of mentors who were happy to help her out. Atop that list was Taylorsville’s “other” state senator, Wayne Harper. Just like Kwan, he shifted to the senate after several years in the Utah House.
“I got along very well with Wayne when I was in the House and he was very gracious to work with in the Senate,” she added. “In general, I found the entire Senate to be very collegial. I don’t mean to bash the House but it always felt like a competition there. In the Senate, it feels more like we work together on policy.”
“Karen Kwan has been a good asset to both the House and Senate,” Harper said. “She works hard to represent her constituents. Sen. Mayne is a hard person to replace, but Karen is doing a good job.”
Harper is proud of the fact, state senate policy discussions include the entire body. In other words, those six Democrats—including Kwan—are not cast to the sideline.
“We respect each elected official and are willing to work together,” he said. “We look for what unites us. Karen (Kwan) has been at the table. She’s been talking. Sometimes I slipped and called her ‘Rep. Kwan.’ But she’s doing a good job for her district.”
Because Kwan was appointed by the governor following a special election, she must now face the general electorate next fall. And although state senators are normally elected into four-year terms, even if she’s elected in 2024, Kwan will have to return to the ballot in November 2026. Only then would she be seated in the state senate for a full, four-year term.
“That part of it is like being in the House again—running every other year,” Kwan said. “I know the Republicans will be gunning for my seat, because I am new. But I believe my constituents will see what I am doing for them. I love being a senator. But I would return to the House in a minute, if Karen Mayne could still be here. I miss her hard work and energy, every day.”
Sen. Harper had equally complimentary things to say about his former colleague.
“Karen Mayne was a champion for the west side,” he said. “I had the privilege to work with her for many years. Every year, we sat down ahead of the upcoming session to chat one-on-one about what our priorities should be for the west side. Then we worked independently in our different caucuses to get those items covered. She knew her principles. But she could also work across the aisle to get things done.”
For the record, following Kwan’s special election to the senate, West Valley City resident Brett Garner won the special election and was appointed by Gov. Cox to fill her House 31 seat. He was one of the handful of opponents Kwan defeated for the senate post.
On his website, Garner reports, “I am a fifth-generation Utahn, descended from Utah pioneers. My wife Shannon teaches special education resource at Taylorsville High, her alma mater. I’ve worked to improve educational opportunities and fought against threats to our students’ success.”
Like Kwan, Garner will face the general electorate in 16 months.
After another couple of months of legislative interim meetings, Kwan will return for her second Utah State Senate session. Mayne is expected to remain in retirement. And the rest of us will have to keep in mind, not all Karens are “Karens.” λ