The lesbian great, great granddaughter of an early leader of the Mormon Church is attracting LGBT support in her bid to represent Utah in Congress.
In what could be an uphill battle, Claudia Wright, a retired high school teacher, is seeking to steal the Democratic nomination from five-term incumbent Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) in a primary election set for June 22.
Wright said she pursued a run against Matheson because she was displeased with his opposition to health care reform legislation, and doesn’t think he is accurately representing voters in the congressional district.
“As this became a gerrymandered district, his attitude was he’d have to move further to the right, but he’s now further to the right — especially on things like health care — he’s now further to the right than [Republican Sen. Bob] Bennett was,” Wright said. “I think he’s too far to the right to represent most of Utah.”
Wright forced a runoff in the race after Matheson failed to secure 60 percent of the vote from delegates at the Utah State Democratic Convention on May 8. Matheson received 55 percent of the vote; Wright received 45 percent.
This marks the first time Matheson hasn’t received enough support from delegates and has faced a primary runoff, according to the Utah-based Deseret News.
Wright said she believes she can beat Matheson in the primary because she’s focusing on issues of concern to Democrats and Republicans. She cited as two priorities public financing of campaigns and reform eliminating “too big to fail” safeguards for banks.
“I think that does appeal to moderates, and I think it does appeal to independents,” she said. “So I think I have a really good shot at perhaps getting the nomination and also winning in the fall.”
An out lesbian, Wright has been in a relationship for 13 years with Stephanie Pace, a retired college professor.
Wright said she has a limited portfolio in LGBT activism, but she contributed to the Utah Pride Center when it first opened in Salt Lake City and is a member of the Human Rights Campaign. She’s received support from a number of LGBT groups and associations within Utah, including an endorsement from the Stonewall Democrats of Utah Caucus.
Bruce Bastian, a gay billionaire philanthropist known for supporting many LGBT organizations, also has thrown his support behind Wright.
Wright has the distinction of being the great, great granddaughter of Brigham Young, an early leader of the Church of Latter-day Saints. He became church president in 1847. Wright said while that lineage may be impressive to people who live outside of Utah, “it’s not unusual” among people within the state because Young was known to have 55 wives and many descendants.
“So about every fourth person in the state is Brigham Young’s descendant,” she said. “Outside of the state, that sounds like a really big deal; inside of the state, it doesn’t get you very far.”
Wright, who said she was a Mormon but now doesn’t belong to any organized religion, is critical of the Mormon Church’s tenet that “sexuality is entirely choice.”
The church is recognized as having played a significant role in backing anti-gay initiatives, most notably Proposition 8, which ended same-sex marriage in California in 2008.
“I felt very out of place, first, as a single women, and then, as a lesbian, later on in the church,” she said. “I haven’t been an active member of the LDS Church in over 20 years.”
Still, Wright said she doesn’t “have any animosity” and that members of both sides of her family subscribe to the Mormon faith.
“I think eventually they’ll have to come around — just like the Catholic Church will, the Baptist Church will, and the Methodist Church will over time,” she said. “And they will. They’ll come to understand the issue better.”
Matheson is known for having a mixed voting record on LGBT issues during his tenure in Congress. He voted in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004 and 2006.
The lawmaker voted in favor of hate crimes legislation and a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007, but he also voted in favor of a motion of recommit to kill ENDA.
Still, Matheson was vocal in his support last week for legislation to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Before voting in favor of the measure, he spoke on the House floor in support of it.
“Anyone who’s willing to put on this country’s uniform and put his or her life on the line to protect our freedoms deserves our respect and should not be subject to discrimination,” he said. “Repealing this flawed policy is an important way for us to show that respect.”
But Wright said she considers Matheson’s vote on the matter — as well as his co-sponsorship of an environmental bill — a way to appease more liberal voices in his district.
“He is trying to win back some of the environmentalists that endorsed me and he’s trying to do the same thing with the LGBT community,” she said. “I think he’s having limited success with both of those.”
Overtaking Matheson in the primary could be a challenge for Wright as his financial resources dwarf the amount she’s raised. According to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports, Matheson had more than $1.4 million in cash on hand, while Wright had about $9,000.
Wright dismissed the funding disparity, saying she’s “running a very different campaign” from Matheson.
She said “a lot of people” are working for her campaign across the state on a volunteer basis and would support her plans to go “town by town, county by county through the state” to compete with Matheson on the grassroots level.
“I can’t compete with him in money,” she said. “He’s always going to be able to afford more ads on TV and more ads on the radio, and I hope to do this person to person.”