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The Unsinkable Shireen Ghorbani

After two electoral defeats, the Salt Lake County Democrat finally gets her turn.


  • Enrique Limón

Fewer than 50 people trudged up Capitol Hill on a recent Thursday evening to witness U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart hold a rare Salt Lake City town hall. Attendees scattered throughout the auditorium, but Shireen Ghorbani sat in the second row. She and Stewart hadn't seen or talked to each other since the representative bested Ghorbani in last November's election.

"My plan is to see my congressman, who has not done a town hall in Salt Lake City proper in a year," Ghorbani says before taking her seat. "I'm just interested to hear what progress he's making on the issues that I know this district cares about."

Ghorbani catches Stewart's eye right before he takes the stage. She waves emphatically, like they're best friends; he gives a faint smile of recognition before looking away.

"Are there any elected officials?" Stewart asks the crowd once he's onstage. "Shireen, you might be an elected official in another couple days," the Republican says, alluding to an empty Salt Lake County Council seat, which Ghorbani is eyeing.

Ghorbani lets out a deep belly laugh. "Any day now," she jokes. "Just keep running."

Stewart pulls names out of a box, to choose who gets to ask him questions. "Shireen, I'm hoping we pick you now," he says after explaining why he's against President Donald Trump's national emergency declaration.

Ghorbani's name never gets drawn. The conversation turns contentious as the hour grows late. Constituents yell at Stewart for bringing up Hillary Clinton, for equivocating on climate change and for not pushing back on Trump's stance on international affairs.

There are dozens of people in the room, but it sometimes feels like it's just two. At one point, Stewart gets flummoxed while talking about the Green New Deal and the impact that individual lifestyle changes can have on global climate.

"Oh my heavens," Stewart says, exasperated. "Why don't you stand up and tell me what you want me to say. OK? Here, Shireen, let's hear what you want me to say."

Ghorbani takes the bait. She says it looks as though Stewart is trying to answer their concerns, but is misunderstanding what his constituents are asking. She rephrases the question. "What I think we're experiencing in terms of frustration is, could you talk about maybe some of the pieces of bigger things that could be happening in Congress around climate change?"

Stewart chooses to answer his former opponent, a communications professional at the U, directly. "I was key, I was the key, to helping your employer, the University of Utah, get hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to develop and do research on geothermal in Central Utah," he says, earning what feels like his only applause that evening.

Some steam built, and fully conscious that she's in his line of sight, Stewart keeps name-checking Ghorbani. At one point, he even takes a dig at her. "If you don't like me—as Shireen was hoping for—then I would be voted out of office," he tells the audience. Someone asks how to get him out, considering how gerrymandered the 2nd congressional district is. The congressman isn't having it. "How you vote them out is you run a great candidate who can win the election," he barbs.

Crowd members swarm Ghorbani after the town hall. "You're such a classy lady," one woman gushes. "I wanted to tell you how much I appreciated your efforts," a man says.

Ghorbani seems in her element, which makes sense—she's been campaigning for a full year. Unmoved by her defeat to Stewart, she ran for Salt Lake County mayor after the midterms. When she lost that election, she pivoted and ran for county council.

"You are relentless," one guy confides.

Stewart's left the venue, but Ghorbani winds up staying, talking to his constituents. Then she quietly exits the room to head to another campaign event. In two days, she'll be on a ballot for the third time in four months.

As she enters the elevator, a woman wishes Ghorbani luck, and tells her something she seems to hear a lot these days: "I hope you win."

The Pendulum Swings
Ghorbani was raised in North Dakota by a single mother. Her father, an Iranian man who struggled with addiction, wasn't much in the picture after Ghorbani turned 6. She and her mom were close in the way that two-member households often are. "I had a great upbringing and a great mom," Ghorbani says, remembering how the matriarch was so thrifty, she would drive family vehicles until they stopped running, then hitch a ride back home. "Those kinds of values of grit, and working hard, and being proud of what she had were important to her."

In June 2016, Ghorbani's mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At 68, she qualified for Medicare, so she didn't have to lose her house or life savings to pay for treatment. But the experience still left an impression on Ghorbani, who until that point had never considered a career in politics. "Thinking about what happened to other families ... I just remember you could literally hear people getting calls from collectors in the hospital," she recalls. "As they're in the ICU. Getting those calls ... paying those bills."

Her mom passed away by the end of that summer. Three months later, Trump was elected. "I couldn't stand what was happening around the debate on health care, and specifically what Chris Stewart has done, which was vote against Obamacare every chance he got, without a single clear solution on how we were going to reduce the cost or increase access to health care," Ghorbani says. "And that's when I was just like, 'I'm done with this. I'm absolutely unwilling to let a person go unchallenged who has no concrete answers for what I have learned.'"

Ghorbani's decision to run for office in the wake of present-day politics is symptomatic of the times, Hinckley Institute of Politics' Morgan Lyon Cotti says. "It's a big explanation for the historic number of women and people of color who ran for office in 2018"—a move that landed Ghorbani, along with 47 others, on the cover of Time magazine.

But Cotti cautions against seeing her as a new political archetype—the embodiment of a populace perennially obsessed with politics and always hungry for change. "We've seen other moments in state history and international history, where we felt like tides were shifting, where we saw more engagement," she says. "But as with the pendulum swinging between parties, we also see this rise and fall of political engagement."

Ghorbani estimates she and her team knocked on 90,000 doors in the five months leading up to the election. She visited ranches in Escalante, businesses in St. George and people's homes in Farmington. "When you spend time on doorsteps across this community, night after night after night, and you hear the kinds of things people are dealing with in their personal lives, it's hard to stop wanting to help and serve and show what good government looks like, and be accessible and responsive and all of those things that I think we want from our representatives," she says.

Stewart wound up winning with 56.1 percent of the vote, but 67 percent of Salt Lake County voters favored Ghorbani, and a seed was planted. Ghorbani earned 38.9 percent of the vote across the district, the closest any Democrat has come to knocking Stewart off his perch. The second-closest was Charlene Abraham, who received 33.9 percent of votes back in 2016.

Ghorbani's "credible campaign," so described by University of Utah Political Science Professor Matthew Burbank, raised her profile among state Democrats. The 37-year-old proved to be an adept coalition builder who knew how to raise resources and run a strong ground game, Burbank says. "I think what you saw from Ghorbani was a real effort to try and campaign."

She's been doing it ever since. Undeterred by the loss, Ghorbani jumped right into another race. She threw her hat in the ring for Salt Lake County mayor, a position Ben McAdams vacated after he won an election to the U.S. House. Ghorbani wound up losing to former Democratic Senate candidate Jenny Wilson by less than 80 votes. A few days later, Ghorbani announced she planned on running for Wilson's vacant seat on the Salt Lake County Council.

The trajectory defied conventional wisdom. Usually, candidates cut their teeth at lower-level positions, and then move toward higher office. "I wouldn't expect more people would do what Ghorbani had done, particularly because it's a hard thing to do," Burbank says, referring to her Benjamin Button-style course. "If you do it badly, that's what people remember."

  • Enrique Limón

Drinking the Kool-Aid
Georgenia Beams started questioning her political ideology sometime around the last presidential election. "Why am I a Republican?" she asked herself. The answer was right in front of her. "Because my father was a Republican, and he gave me an explanation of why he was years ago, and it seemed to fit. I just wore that until Donald Trump, and then I was like, 'No, I won't be that.'"

Beams is explaining her political awakening to Ghorbani inside Taylorsville's City Hall one weeknight in February. A precinct chair, Beams is one of three central committee members sitting at an oversized conference table listening to the council candidate's pitch for why she'd make a good Wilson replacement.

Beams supported Wilson in the Salt Lake County mayoral race, but says she liked what Ghorbani had to say. Ghorbani, she says, effortlessly engages with everyone, regardless of their party affiliation or political history. And that makes neophytes afraid to come out of the woodwork more likely to engage in the political process. "Most of the people I know have never done any of this stuff before," Beams says. Her newfound openness to Democratic ideals has strained some of her relationships with her family and friends. "It's hard to come out," she half-jokes.

Ghorbani listens intently as the conversations turn personal. The topics run the gamut—from access to mental health care, to water quality, to the local and national Democratic Party's political machine. Ghorbani intermittently chimes in to explain what falls under the purview of the county, as opposed to the duties of the city, state and federal governments. She's adamant that Salt Lake County must explain to its residents how they can access available resources.

"Just trying to navigate these systems is confusing for people. Especially when you've got busy lives, when you've got a full-time job, when you've got all these things going on. How are you supposed to stay engaged?" Ghorbani asks. "So, I'm trying to help people understand, 'Here's how you do it.'"

One of the attendees tells Ghorbani that she doesn't have to win her over. "Well, I've already drank the Shireen Ghorbani Kool-Aid," Janna Martin says. The local high school history teacher voted for her in the congressional and mayoral races. Martin talks to Ghorbani like they're personal friends, not a candidate and voter in the midst of political courtship.

"I feel like you are a shining star, and I'm curious where we put you," Martin says. "I'm just thinking, is this the best place for you? How are you doing this? You have a little kid. How are you working? I don't want you to campaign for the rest of your life, but I also think, 'Really, City Council?'"

The conversation turns aspirational. Why not run for governor, Martin asks, or take another shot at Stewart's seat? "I will vote for you," she says. "I'm just thinking, 'Is this where you want to end up?'"

Ghorbani shrugs it off. There are big decisions on issues she cares deeply about being made at the county level: health care, criminal justice reform, sustainable growth and development. "So it's not about checking a box or, you know, it's certainly not a consolation prize or a default to me, in any way," Ghorbani says. "There is a long history of people serving in county government because they are such big entities," she continues. "The county is the second-largest budget in the state."

It's not like the constant campaigning has gotten to her, Ghorbani assures. "I am an extrovert in the way that introverts find exhausting," she tells Martin. She loves knocking on strangers' doors, regardless of whether they listen or ask her to go away. "It's an incredible honor and privilege to run," Ghorbani says. "To be able to sit here with you, to hear your story, to talk about what it is you're hoping to see in the future of the Democratic Party, to talk about those issues related to the environment that we care about so much."

A few minutes into the exchange, Martin seems convinced. She asks if electing Ghorbani to the council would put her star on the rise on the state or national levels. "Or do you not want to go there? Are you not interested?" she insists.

Ghorbani doesn't miss a beat. She's already committed to running for reelection should she secure Wilson's seat, but her newfound political career will continue regardless of whether or not she wins. "I feel like I'm just getting started," she answers.

The Newbie Leaves Her Mark
Ghorbani was hardly the only candidate vying for Wilson's spot after being bested in other elections. Pamela Berry tried to pick up the District 5 seat last year; Darlene McDonald ran for McAdams' mayoral seat; and Stone Fonua has campaigned for various offices on Republican, Democrat and Constitution Party tickets. And Josie Valdez, a self-described "lifelong Democrat," ran for lieutenant governor and state senator in 2008 and 2012, respectively. Years earlier, she unsuccessfully ran for county assessor.

But Ghorbani says her campaigning has mirrored present-day politicking, thanks to her commanding social media presence. She's done an Ask Me Anything on Reddit, more than 7,500 people follow her Twitter feed and almost 15,000 people have liked her Facebook page. "Social media's not everything, but a lot of people get their information there," Ghorbani says. "There isn't another candidate that's run a [more] modern campaign."

Ghorbani is the firebrand to candidates like Valdez, a local Democratic Party stalwart. "I don't think we're rivals," Valdez says. "I think the universe has brought us together to strengthen our party, and to strengthen the values that are so important to us. So, we work together."

Still, Valdez thinks there's value in the wisdom that more battle-hardened candidates like herself offer. "There is no need to discard or disregard or throw away the experience of the more mature political involved, or the more politically experienced politician, to work together to enhance the representation of those we are representing, to make sure their voice is truly heard," she says.

Young blood is exciting, Valdez admits, because candidates like Ghorbani bring new ideas and energy to the Democratic Party. But that doesn't mean politicos should discount the benefits borne from an extensive, professional history. "I do think that a certain amount of seasoning, a certain amount of practical experience, a certain amount of actual know-how, of being on the job and having dealt with governmental issues, governmental policies ... is very important to actually serve on a fuller basis without trial and error, and periods of having to basically do on-the-job training," Valdez says.

Q. Dang, the Salt Lake County Democratic Party's executive committee chair, says campaigning is an experience all its own. "There's nothing like actually being the candidate. It's one thing to work on the campaign, it's another thing to have so much skin in the game that you're constantly thinking about anything you're doing," he says. "Until you are in that mindset of being a candidate and talking to your constituents, as the candidate, I don't know how else you would prepare to be in political office."

Dang thinks Ghorbani brings a lot to the table. She's a dynamic personality who's unafraid to talk to Republicans, Democrats and Independents, he declares. And she's proven to be a good fundraiser, a hard worker and a candidate that voters respond favorably to. "If the maps were drawn more competitively, I think that she's the type of candidate that can win and take it to the national level," Dang says, looking ahead to the weekend's meeting of the Salt Lake County Democratic Central Committee, which will decide Ghorbani's fate. "So, does she have a bright future ahead of her no matter how Saturday turns out? Absolutely."

Accompanied by her husband Nicholas Steffens and son Desmond, Ghorbani awaits her fate during a recent meeting of the Salt Lake County Democratic Central Committee. - KELAN LYONS
  • Kelan Lyons
  • Accompanied by her husband Nicholas Steffens and son Desmond, Ghorbani awaits her fate during a recent meeting of the Salt Lake County Democratic Central Committee.

The Charm
It's Saturday, and Dang stands on the stage in the auditorium of Taylorsville's Eisenhower Junior High, home of the Generals, telling the crowd what to expect. Each of the 10 candidates for Wilson's seat will give a five-minute speech, after which committee members in attendance will cast ballots. If no one earns 60 percent of the votes, the top two competitors will square off in another round.

Ghorbani electrifies the crowd when she walks onstage. "This energy that you feel, that you see, that you tell me about, it's more than just my own story. It's your stories," she says amid raucous applause. "It is the unrelenting belief that we can do better, and we can do that work right here in Salt Lake County."

She talks about her mom and her campaign against Stewart. She lays out her vision for the future, which includes improving mass transit, reforming the criminal justice system and becoming a renewable energy leader. "The call to service that I feel is embedded in the work of Salt Lake County. It's where my heart is," Ghorbani says before asking the more than 500 Utahns in attendance for their vote. She wraps up her address by shining a light on one of the state's more rampant health crises. "Let's get this done for every family, every person facing addiction who feels there is no hope," she says. "Let's give them hope, and let's get this done today."

Valdez, the last candidate to speak, is joined onstage by local leaders like Sheriff Rosie Rivera. She talks about her work in federal and city governments, and how, more than a decade ago, she was the first candidate of color to run for lieutenant governor. She highlights her experience serving on commissions, panels and boards that help the less fortunate. "As Shireen said, let's get it done. And I agree with her, but let's get it done with someone who has experience," Valdez says.

Unfazed, Ghorbani stands in the school's cafeteria as people pass her on their way to the ballot box. She takes photos with admirers and thanks the people who tell her that they're feeling good about her chances.

"You got dumped on," one man tells Ghorbani, referring to Valdez's speech. "It pissed me off."

Differences aside, Valdez comes by and hugs Ghorbani on her way to her section of the cafeteria. "I enjoyed your presentation," Valdez tells her opponent.

Almost two hours pass as officials tally the 537 ballots. Ghorbani is on her feet almost the entire time, talking with voters and checking in with volunteers. Once the results are in, she reenters the auditorium and sits at the edge of the room.

"Shireen Ghorbani, 295 votes, 55.35 percent," Dang reads. She's just shy of the cutoff to win the election outright. Valdez, it's revealed, earned 19.7 percent of the votes, putting her in second place. They'll have to face off once more to determine who wins the seat.

Valdez goes first. She emphasizes health care, affordable housing and the importance of diversity and representation among the local Democratic Party and county council. "I have been leading the way for change," Valdez says. "There is a lot to be done, and I can bring that change."

The crowd is more subdued the second time Ghorbani approaches the lectern. She pledges to fight for working-class families and support labor unions before making her final plea. "As the daughter of an immigrant, as a person who is fighting for the very future that I need to see not 10 years from now, but right now—a future where we've got access to mental health care, where we have access to addiction treatment services, where we have the kind of open spaces that we need, and the quality of life across every zip code of this county—I am asking for your vote today because I will be out there with you, fighting from downtown Salt Lake City to Bluffdale, to turn this entire county blue in 2020," she says.

Ghorbani hugs and high-fives her way across the cafeteria as she waits for the final count. Even with the race technically over, she keeps politicking for about an hour before everyone is called back into the auditorium.

The final count is in. "For Josie Valdez, we had 127 votes," Dang reads. "Shireen Ghorbani, 333 votes."

Three attempts in, Ghorbani's turn had finally come. Ecstatic, she ambles up to the mic with her husband and 4-year-old son in tow. Taking in the moment, she profusely thanks her family and campaign volunteers. "To all of you who supported me from the very beginning, when I came out of nowhere because I was mad as hell and completely unwilling to back down for the future that I want for each and every one of us," she says, "I am so ready to get to work for you."

The auditorium's lights are shut off soon after the acceptance speech, leaving Ghorbani and her well-wishers in the dark. As she makes her way toward the school's exit, the newly minted county councilwoman reflects on the path that got her here. She encourages anyone who is interested in running for office to follow through on their ambition and take the plunge. "You've gotta keep going," she urges. "Just do absolutely everything that you can to build that future that you want."