Michele Weeks is the Democrat challenging Republican Senator Howard Stephenson in Senate District 11. The two candidates will be competing to represent an area encompassing Draper, Riverton, Bluffdale, and portions of Lehi. Voters will decide in November who should represent the area.
Jump to Questions:
Who are you and why are you running?
You were Mrs. Utah, 2013, and your issue was children ADHD, why?
You ran for Draper City Council last year, why did you run and what did you learn?
Why do you feel women don’t run for office and what would you tell them?
What issues are important to you?
What are your thoughts on education and education reform?
What is your opinion of school district splits?
How should we address growth in this state?
What are your plans for success considering you are running as a Democrat in a tough area?
What did we forget to ask?
Utah Political Capitol: Who are you and why are you running?
Michele Weeks: I am a stepmother of four and have two children of my own and have been very involved with the school system here in Utah. I have lived in the state for 15 years and I teach skiing at Snowbird.
In my youth, I was an intern for Joseph Kennedy on Capitol Hill after I graduated from Towson University just outside of Baltimore with a degree in communications. After that I worked in radio and television for a few years before moving to New York City where I met my future husband and eventually moving to Utah.
UPC: So what brought you to Utah?
MW: My husband. He grew up in Murray and has lived here for some 50 years. We both love the mountains, the beauty, and the nature of Utah. He had children from a previous marriage here, so we moved back in order for him to be closer to the children and allow us to raise our own children here as well.
UPC: One of the interesting things about you is that you won the title of “Mrs. Utah” in 2013. During the competition, one of the things you focused on was reaching out to children with ADHD. Why is that important to you and how would that reflect in your policy proposals in the Senate?
MW: My son has ADHD. What I have found in children with ADHD is that they are very bright, very intelligent, and very creative, but their self-esteem is demolished through the whole process of education and just growing up. They can’t sit still, they can’t do certain things.
My son was suffering from self-esteem problems and was also going through speech therapy, and when I went to the speech program here in Utah, there were far too many kids with only one teacher. Now, she was a great teacher, but there was no way she was going to be able to help all the kids in her class do things like helping children pronounce their words properly.
We also placed my son in private courses. In time he started writing his own songs and even writing full albums. By tapping into his creativity he realized that he is not just a boy with a learning problem—he is a singer, he can contribute to society. Soon his outlook changed, his friends changed, and he really developed his gift.
This is just my experience, but I want to give other parents the same opportunities through our public schools. I want to be a resource to help guide parents to programs that currently exist and show that the schools really are there to help. Frankly, a lot of parents just don’t know where to go.
UPC: In the last election cycle, you ran for office for the first time for a seat on the Draper City Council. What made you decide to run, and what did you learn during that election?
MW: At the time, the Draper City Council was filled with men, and I really do feel that women need to be involved too. Women can be more in touch with the needs of a family. We do the books for the family, we do homework with the kids, we are driving around on the roads dropping off kids, etc. In short, we have a different outlook than our husbands on what society needs and what our kids need. I really felt like we needed a woman’s voice on the city council.
It’s the same reason why I am running for state senator.
During the campaign for city council, I discovered that the issues I really want to address need to be corrected at a state level. In particular, education and funding for education are my top priority.
After I ran for city council, I thought I would take a break. But soon after someone invited me to see Senator Stephenson speak in front of the education board. While I was there, he said “I don’t believe children with IEP’s [Individualized Education Program] should be in a regular classroom.” I was thinking, “What? My child is super intelligent in many things but may need an IEP because he has a problem with speech—he should not be in a regular classroom?” It floored me and I thought “Ugh, you are going to make me run.”
(IEP’s are mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Act and creates individual education goals that consider disabilities).
Stephenson then said, “I don’t believe that a teacher who has a student in class who doesn’t get a C or better, I don’t believe that the teacher should be reimbursed for teaching that child.” So, the teacher has to make sure that the student brings all of their homework home, studies for the test? Maybe the child’s family is going through a divorce, so you are saying that the teacher shouldn’t get paid? That would destroy our education system as it is today.
So, within a 30 minute period, I had decided I had to run.
UPC: You have already talked a bit about why women in politics should run, and there has been a lot of talk about women in politics this year. But only 20 percent of the candidates running for office are women. What would you say to encourage more women to run, and why do you feel that women don’t run in the first place?
MW: I was listening to a TED Talk the other day called “Lean In,” from Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and she was talking about how women have a lot to say, but we always second guess whether we have the knowledge to get involved. I really think that women do have the knowledge, we just second guess what we know while many men just seem to jump in! As women, we tend to plan, and sometimes we just need to jump.
I think women think they have to know everything to get involved, and we don’t. Men seem to think “I know enough, I can jump in,” and so that is one of the reasons I think women don’t run. We are also the ones that are holding our families together, we are the ones going grocery shopping, helping the kids with the homework, taking the kids to the activities, and I think that women don’t think that they can squeeze in the time in order to run a campaign. But, really, we need to because what happens at the state capitol really does affect our kids and our households. We truly need a strong voice so that we can correct some of the problems that we see every day such as teachers who are underpaid and students not getting enough attention.
I feel that women are acutely aware of what needs to be done to make our communities strong, and that is why I feel women need to run.
UPC: Aside from education, what other issues are important to you in your senate run?
MW: Well, I am a ski instructor, and I truly do enjoy the natural beauty of Utah. I believe that nature is one of the greatest resources within the state.
Clean air is a big factor in my run this election, and [Representative] Patrice Arent has done a wonderful job getting some bills passed and drawing attention to bills that need to pass to improve the air.
Though I do have some other issues, I don’t want to pass bills just to pass bills. I think we are over-regulated as a society, and that concerns me. I would even like some of the regulations taken off of recent bills that have been passed. I think that society needs to regulate itself a little more and not have government regulate as much. I know that sounds a little Republican, but that is how I feel.
UPC: What does that mean when you say you wish to take regulations off the books?
MW: Now that is not in regards to clean air, that is just a general statement. If I see anything where I think the government is trying to take our rights away as a citizen or control us as a population more than we need to be controlled, I am going to vote against the bill every time.
UPC: Clean air is a very regulated area or not regulated enough, depending on your point of view. Do you mean that you want to encourage people and businesses to just be more environmentally friendly, rather than create laws implementing those policies? What does that mean, exactly?
MW: I am encouraging our society to be more environmentally friendly. You can just look at some of the basic things here in Utah and we can see simple changes such as stricter emissions controls can vastly improve our air. We need to do a better job of looking at the laws of other states to see how they are addressing their clean air issues too because this is a problem, and it is affecting people’s health.
We are here in Utah because it is a beautiful environment, we enjoy our streams, our mountains, our lakes, but we can’t do that if we can’t breathe the air that is outside.
UPC: So you are saying smarter regulations as opposed to more regulations?
MW: I am.
UPC: Education has always been a big issue in Utah, as you are probably aware, we are dead last or near dead last in the nation for things like teacher pay and per-pupil spending. Your opponent, Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican – Draper), has advocated for moving away from “brick and mortar” in-classroom school settings, and relying more on online courses. Now, he may not want to abandon public education entirely, but he certainly seems like he wants to change it. With all of that in mind, what are your thoughts on education reform and what do you see needs to happen in our education system?
MW: I believe in public education. Public education can really help our children prepare for the future, and I feel that our education system in Utah is broken. Senator Stephenson has been there for 20 years and it has declined, it has not improved since he started representing this area. Teacher salaries have not adjusted to the cost of living. When we say that we want to attract new and bright teachers to Utah, we can’t have a system where a teacher, fresh out of college, earns $3,000 below the poverty line and forces them to have second jobs. This is sad, this is really sad. Our neighboring states are giving their teachers more money and more support, along with smaller class sizes.
We also need to consider the changes to our education system in regards to Common CORE. A child cannot learn off of a computer alone, they need a teacher, they need to have someone explain what is being taught, they need to have someone understand their questions, and they need to have someone that teaches the way they learn. Every child learns differently and a good teacher knows how to adapt in order to get the message across. I don’t see computers doing that to help educate our children. Yes, technology can be an assistant, but it should not replace teachers.
Another problem is that a teacher can not address the 35 kids in their classroom, and some kids slip through the cracks. What we really need is to have smaller class sizes to ensure that what was taught that day was understood by everyone in that class, and that just can’t be done when there are so many kids.
UPC: So, how does that happen?
MW: Well, we all say that education is priority one, but when we look at our budget, clearly it is not. We need to redirect some of our funding to education. I also feel that there shouldn’t be a cap on trust lands. I think that this is a way to help our schools get funded. I don’t want to raise taxes, and I do feel the money is out there, we just have to redirect it.
UPC: One of the other education issues is school district splits. The issue seems to come up every legislative session. Where do you fall on school district splits?
MW: So, here we are in the Canyon’s District and, look, it needed to be done. From what I have heard, we were never going to get the schools we needed, we were never going to get a high school if we didn’t split from the Jordan District. So sometimes it is necessary.
I really think that you have to look at each district individually and ask how large it is, how much the population is growing, and if the current district can address all the kids needs. As Utah grows, certain school districts are going to grow faster than other districts, and splits are going to need to happen just because there are so many students.
UPC: Do you feel that the state has a role to play in encouraging smart growth? Is the system working now, or do you feel that is more of a local municipal issue?
MW: One of the issues I have is that, when growth takes place, a city council can ask “how does it affect our roads, our sewers, and our services,” but they are not allowed to ask “how does this affect our schools?” That is a problem because we are having pockets of growth that are very large, and our schools are packed—we can’t house our students, and it is putting pressure on established communities.
Because of this I would like to see issues addressed more locally, but I really think how growth will affect our schools should be considered when decisions are made.
UPC: You are running as a Democrat in Southern Salt Lake County and Northern Utah County. Traditionally, this is not the easiest thing to do for someone from you Party. How do you plan to reach out to voters and succeed?
MW: As I said before, I don’t think Senator Stephenson has done anything to improve our schools over the past 20 years, and I really think the issue needs to be addressed. Our students are not getting into our universities because they are not getting high enough test scores, and that’s costing us jobs because our workforce isn’t educated enough. Parents are facing the fact that education needs to be addressed for our kids to have a future.
That is my message, and I feel it will go across Party lines.
I also think that the idea of having more women elected resonates with voters as a way to show that education is a priority. I really feel that these reasons will make people look beyond the traditional Party lines to realize that we are really not all that different. The war between Republicans and Democrats is really hurting our state and hurting our country. We really need to just vote for the candidate that best represents us.
UPC: Last question: Is there anything else you would like to add?
MW: One of the things that I like about myself is that I am approachable, and I am eager to listen. If you have an idea I will listen, I know how to take both sides of an issue and find common sense solutions.
You know, I am a common person, I know what families are going through because I am going through it. I want to be a voice for these families, I am not someone removed from society. That is why I really want to be a state senator, it is because I really feel that you need a grounded perspective to find out what is going on.
In an interesting side note, Weeks appears to already has one vote in the bag. As UPC was interviewing her, a local voter walked up and asked for her name so that he would be sure to vote for her come election day.
**Utah Political Capitol does not endorse any candidate or party. The views expressed by candidates are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of UPC.**