Mullen | Vox Populi: 2007: Hollering about clean air and school vouchers 

In keeping with every newspaper, magazine and broadcast outlet in the world this week, I feel a certain obligation to look back on 2007 with either warmth or horror.

Or some combination of both, I guess.

As I write this, there’s a 50-something man wearing a Santa hat standing on the TRAX platform directly out my office window. He’s shaking hands with harried strangers, clapping them on the back and apparently wishing them good cheer. That’s one for the warmth list. On the other hand, a raggedy homeless man who looks like a chimney sweep, still more or less lives full-time on Main Street, even on the coldest nights. His life never gets better. That’s one for horror.

I stopped in at Lamb’s Grill downtown earlier this week for a late lunch. That’s when I overheard a conversation that led me to putting a theme on this past year.

“I don’t think I can take another year of bad air,” said one of the women. “The thought of it coming depresses the hell out of me. I’m coughing all the time, my eyes burn … It makes me sick, literally.”

“I know,” said the other. “But people are starting to notice. There’s that doctor, I can’t think of his name, that started that group to clean up the air …”

I’m thinking that something valuable might have evolved among Utah’s great teeming masses this year. Like the women lunching at Lamb’s, enough of us faced down important social and political issues, I think, to label 2007 as “The Year Utah Spoke Truth to Power.”

I’ve lived in Utah for 37 of my 50 years. For the 13 years in between, I moved around the country a good bit. I came back because I’m a lot like the rest of you. Utah’s beauty, its simple rhythm and its goofy quirks sucked me back like a giant geographic magnet.

Overall, I think I understand this place quite well. I’m not given to hyperbolic respect for the people I share this state with. I’m always out of step with the majority, and I spend a lot of time eye rolling and ranting to whomever will listen against what passes for thoughtful public policy.

What I observed this year, though, gives me some hope. We still have a state that can think for itself—even though we typically embrace the authority of white men in white shirts and dark suits. A lot of people woke up in 2007. It’s like they ordered an extra shot of caffeine in looking at the world around them. Their brains were on high energy. They found their power in grassroots.

I’ll give you two examples of how we found our voice this past year. We actually hollered “enough.”

• A call for cleaner air: “That doctor” to whom the lunching Lamb’s ladies referred is Brian Moench, a Salt Lake City anesthesiologist and founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. Moench had written and spoken publicly about his concerns over dirty air along the Wasatch Front and growing carbon emissions as more people drive more cars. But this year, he took action. Moench gathered fellow doctors to the cause. His actions encouraged a group of Utah mothers to form their own clean-air coalition—Utah Moms for Clean Air.

They focus on goals many in Utah still consider impossible: fewer new highways and more transit options. They are fighting the establishment of any new coal-fired power plants. Moench even has the cojones to call for free transit. (Hey. It could work. If we stop going road-building crazy)

I’m expecting Moench and friends to make pests of themselves at the 2008 Legislature. They’ll bring stats like this one: In Davis County’s North Salt Lake and Woods Cross, 16.2 percent of children under 17 suffered from asthma during 2003 to 2006, according to a Utah Health Department study. Increases in asthma are directly linked to increased levels of air pollution. Moench calls clean air a moral issue, and he’s right. It’s about our kids and the kids who come after them.

• Beating school vouchers: State Republicans steamrolled the public will this year in passing a tax-funded school-voucher bill. Most Utahns got sick of being treated like gum on the Legislature’s shoe and fought back. Enough of us signed petitions to bring the issue to a ballot in November. It was an ugly fight, but voters defeated vouchers, 62 percent to 38 percent.

Ballot initiatives are almost impossible to pull off, but this one was an obsession. Turns out we like our public schools. We think they can be improved without handing the wealthy a tax credit. Take that, establishment.

Still to come: Utahns—late as we may be—will keep building opposition to the war in Iraq. In October, according to a Dan Jones & Associates poll for the Deseret Morning News and KSL, 43 percent of us disapproved of the president’s handling of the war. Even in Utah, we’re going to have a bellyful of this war and Bush’s performance. Keep watching for the anti-war numbers to grow.

We still have a long way to go. Next year, our voices get even louder. Can’t wait.

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