If Bernie Sanders can run for political office as a Democrat, then so can Stephen Tryon.
For the second election cycle in a row, the ex-senior vice president at online retailer Overstock.com is running for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District seat. The key difference this time is that the former independent candidate now has the full backing of the Democratic Party.
Tryon, a U.S. Army veteran and West Point graduate who has a Bronze Star medal for valor in combat, worked as a legislative fellow for former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Georgia, at the end of his military career. But he considers himself to be a “career citizen” – not a career politician.
When he last ran in 2014 for the U.S. House seat that Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz currently occupies, Tryon finished fourth out of five candidates, with 1.8 percent of the vote.
At the time, Tryon said he campaigned as an unaffiliated candidate because he wanted to separate himself from the special interests that influence lawmakers from both major political parties.
Then, as now, he said he believes that the country’s economy is rigged in favor of the wealthiest Americans at the expense of its poorest citizens, echoing a certain independent U.S. senator from Vermont.
Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, was little known beyond his home state until he mounted a run last year for president as a Democrat, drawing national attention to his concerns about the economic disparities between Wall Street and Main Street.
“I tell people that Bernie stole my talking points,” Tryon joked.
When Tryon decided to run again, he changed his political affiliation partly because he wants to win the race. But he said he also believes that the Democratic Party “has it right” in terms of its respect for people’s choices, as well as its commitment to individual dignity.
“I’m much more comfortable with the Democratic Party’s stances,” he said.
Along with the Democratic Party’s national standard-bearers, Tryon said he supports Sanders’ call for a $15 federal minimum wage, with some caveats.
“I think it’s a great idea, and I think we should work toward it,” he said.
But he said he doesn’t know if it can be implemented immediately.
“We have to be sensitive to the pressure it puts on small businesses,” he said.
Tryon calls education one of his top priorities as a candidate, and he said he wants to make kindergarten through college the new standard for students in America.
“Why are we still educating people the way we were 50 years ago?” he asked.
Students should be responsible for some of the costs they incur to attend college, he said, but they shouldn’t have to fall into “crushing debt” just to get a degree.
A Democrat in a strongly Republican district
Although he’s now affiliated with one of the country’s two major political parties, Tryon still faces an uphill race in a congressional district that includes the state’s Republican stronghold – a place that also happens to be home to the overwhelming majority of district voters.
Four years ago, Republicans cast 88 percent of all votes in GOP-friendly Utah County, while Democrats barely managed to crack the 10 percent mark. With turnout there heavily in his favor, Chaffetz coasted to victory with more than 76 percent of the vote in 2012, and more than 72 percent of the vote two years later.
Like Chaffetz, Tryon also hails from the Wasatch Front, but he said he’s committed to representing the entire district – not just the population center that surrounds Provo and Orem.
“We’ve neglected the southeastern part of Utah for too long, economically,” he said.
Tryon considers Moab to be an economic success story, but mainly because its unique geography draws visitors from around the world. The local model is not representative of other rural communities in the district, such as Green River, Price and Blanding, he said, and Tryon said he wants to diversify those economies by building a globally competitive regional workforce.
During his time with Overstock.com, the company moved about 100 flexible jobs to Tooele, and if he’s elected, Tryon said he would conduct similar outreach to lure so-called “Silicon Slope” businesses along the Wasatch Front to communities in the district.
“Why don’t you have campuses for Adobe in Moab and Price … some of these cool places?” he asked.
At the same time, Tryon said he envisions a “21st Century Manhattan Project” in eastern Utah that functions as a research and innovation hub to combat global climate change.
“The work that needs to be done on climate change is important,” he said. “Why not bring some of those efforts to southeastern Utah?”
To that end, he said he also supports the development of renewable energy and nuclear power projects in the region.
On public lands issues, he said he supports environmentalists’ calls that urge President Barack Obama to declare a Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County.
On the other hand, Tryon remains dubious of the seven-county eastern Utah Public Lands Initiative that Chaffetz and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, introduced in the U.S. House. Chaffetz and Bishop have said their bill aims to resolve longstanding disputes over public land management in the region, but Tryon said he doesn’t trust the process.
Tryon, who tried to meet with Chaffetz in Washington, D.C., several years ago to discuss some of the ideas he raised in his self-published book “Accountability Citizenship,” said he doesn’t believe the congressman listens to his constituents. He said he considers Chaffetz to be a big part of the failure on Capitol Hill, and if he’s elected, he said he would work to restore voters’ faith and confidence in a Congress whose public approval rating currently hovers at around 11 percent of likely voters.
Chaffetz counters that he’s worked well with Democrats like Elijah Cummings of Maryland, Grace Napolitano of California and Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona to enact legislation that benefits not only the district, but the Four Corners region and the country as a whole. That includes bipartisan work to increase funding for the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project, as well as more money to improve roads on the Navajo Nation in southern San Juan County.
“Personally, I think that I’ve gotten along exceptionally well on both sides of the aisle,” Chaffetz said.
As chair of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Chaffetz is perhaps best known nationally for investigating the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. He also gained national attention when he presided over hearings regarding Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State, prompting The New York Times to dub him “Clinton’s latest congressional adversary” and “new tormentor.”
However, Chaffetz said there’s more to his work in Congress than the national media coverage would suggest.
“The news is chock full of conflict – I get that,” he said. “But behind the scenes, I play well in the sandbox with others.”
Grand County Republican Party chair Curtis Wells said his confidence in and appreciation of Chaffetz’ service to Grand County grows each day.
“Never in the history of this congressional district have we had a representative that has parallel tracked battling federal corruption and overreach, while simultaneously being present and available to discuss local issues with his constituents in our community,” Wells said.
Grand County Democratic Party chair Bob Greenberg counters that he doesn’t believe Chaffetz has been a “very good friend” to his constituents.
“He has been way more interested in promoting ideology, rather than practical solutions to the real problems his district faces,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg said the Democratic Party doesn’t hold Tryon’s past run as an unaffiliated candidate against him.
“We will support people who seem like good public servants, even if they’re not party diehards,” Greenberg said.
If Tryon is elected, Greenberg said, the candidate’s background as a veteran, a legislative fellow and a businessman would be a boon to the district and its voters.
“He’s actually got some experience in government and some experience in the business world, so he’s kind of a practical politician,” Greenberg said. “He has a good feel for what might actually be good for Utah, and a good feel for how government works.”
Stephen Tryon invokes Bernie Sanders and progressive platform in run for Congress
He’s actually got some experience in government and some experience in the business world, so he’s kind of a practical politician … He has a good feel for what might actually be good for Utah, and a good feel for how government works.
To learn more about Tryon and his campaign, go to tryonforcongress.com.
This is the first of two profiles about candidates for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District seat. A profile of Republican incumbent Jason Chaffetz will appear in a future edition of the Moab Sun News.