SOUTH JORDAN — It's a Tuesday afternoon at Madeline's Steakhouse, and in the back room 33 of the biggest power brokers in the state have gathered to discuss strategy. As they stab salads and sip Diet Cokes over an audible buzz, it seems that the future of the state's politics, at least to some extent, lies in their hands.
What makes this gathering unique, especially in a place like Utah, is that no one around the table belongs to the boys' club that has traditionally run this state. In fact, with only one exception, everyone here is a woman.
If there's a sign Utah is changing, there is perhaps no better place to look than this monthly meeting of a nascent all-girls club called the Troublemakers. While the name is mostly tongue-in-cheek, it also serves as subtle notice that women, who have traditionally been shut out of Utah politics, are now demanding a seat at the table.
This comes at a time in which women are stepping into the forefront of legislative battles. Rep. Becky Lockhart became the first female Speaker of the House last year and Sen. Luz Robles helped broker a compromise on immigration reform, the most significant piece of legislation this session.
Today's gathering at Madeline's is a who's who of up-and-coming Utah women politicos. Saratoga Springs mayor Mia Love, the only black female mayor in Utah's history, is here, talking shop with Donna Evans, the former mayor of West Jordan, who exudes an aura of sage-like wisdom. Deidre Henderson, Rep. Jason Chaffetz's spunky and polished campaign manager, is a few chairs down, pounding out a text message to schedule an upcoming apointment. On the opposite side of the room Julie Dole divulges details about her campaign for the chairmanship of the Salt Lake County Republican Party — an election she'll win in two days' time.
Then there's Jennifer Scott, the common thread linking together most of the Troublemakers. Scott, Chaffetz's district director for his Utah office, recruited many of the Troublemakers herself. She sets the date for the monthly lunches and sends out invitations via Facebook.
The point of the meetings, Scott says, is to encourage more women to take part in Utah politics, and to help those who are already part of the process to make a difference.
"Troublemakers creates opportunities for other women to see what we're doing and to learn from it," Scott said. "I think people benefit from knowing somebody who's involved in the process one way or another, somebody who they can ask their questions to — and we all have questions."
The bulk of each monthly meeting consists of going around the room and hearing what "trouble" each woman has been up to ( what political activities she is participating in). After everyone speaks, one lucky woman is deemed "troublemaker of the month" and awarded a 99-cent tiara to commemorate the honor.
Although Troublemakers is not aligned with any particular political ideaology, most of the women at Tuesday's meeting speak about working for causes that are in line with conservative principles. The specific issues they're involved with run the gamut from hyper-local (policies of the Jordan School District) all the way to global (United Nations humanitarian efforts). Ultimately, today's shamrock-emblazoned tiara goes to Nicole Martin, a public information officer for the city of Herriman who successfully lobbied for the legislation that replaces Herriman's police fees with property taxes.
Within an hour after the meeting's end, Martin will post onto her Facebook account a photo showing the new tiara proudly displayed on her desk at work.
"We're women who are out there in what's traditionally seen in Utah as a man's world, and we're able to speak up and make a difference in a variety of ways," said Rep. Holly Richardson, a freshman member of the Utah legislature and author of the "Holly on the Hill" blog.
The group now known as Troublemakers initially existed for several years under a much more benign name, but when the efforts of some of the women to influence a certain municipal issue provoked an elected official to dub them "troublemakers," they embraced the name and ran with it. With an unforgettable name in tow once the ladies began calling themselves the Troublemakers, attendance at the monthly meetings mushroomed.
For Scott, perhaps the most important thing about Troublemakers is that the synergy it creates can catalyze women to develop mentoring relationships with each other. That's because, about a decade ago, Scott was herself a stay-at-home mom with minimal political experience who benefited immensely from the mentoring she received via Evans, then the mayor of West Jordan.
Henderson is one of several beneficiaries of Scott's informal mentoring. The two first met when Henderson started working on the Chaffetz campaign in January 2008, and these days they converse on the phone several times daily regarding, well, just about everything under the sun.
"Jennifer's very good at recognizing where people are strong and helping them learn to magnify those strengths," Henderson said. "She relishes other women's success, and I really admire that about her. I've learned a lot from her about how to help other people reach their potential and not be threatened by that."
Troublemakers encompasses an age range from late 20s to senior citizen, but many of the women aren't far removed from the time in their lives when taking care of their babies and small children fills the days and then some.
"I didn't get involved when my kids were really little," said Henderson, whose five children range from 7 to 16 years old. "My main obligation has always been to my kids and my family. … I started becoming involved in politics when my youngest went to school, and I run the campaign out of my laundry room.
"Because I work from home, I can take care of the things I need to at home and I can also do my job. When the kids are at school or when my husband's able, that's when I go out and do the things outside of home that I need to do for my job."
Despite the enthusiasm surrounding Troublemakers, an artificial ceiling may already exist for women in Utah politics. Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, readily acknowledges the political vitality, productivity and influence of women like Scott and Henderson. However, he cautions that before women start winning statewide elections in Utah with any kind of frequency, a fix must first be found for the caucus system that sends to convention a contingent of Republican delegates which is 75 percent male.
"I think the biggest stumbling block for women breaking into our elected offices in Utah is women are still far too underrepresented in the convention system," Jowers said. "The numbers that the Hinckley Institute, (Dan Jones & Associates) and Deseret News did together in April 2010 showed that women are far less likely to become delegates, and that obviously has a huge impact on who can be elected."
Scott, however, is unfazed by the caucus and convention mechanisms as she ponders the future of women in Utah politics.
"I couldn't disagree more with Jowers," Scott said. "I know fellow Troublemakers, including Jowers' wife Kristen, may not all agree. But the caucus convention system levels the playing field for candidates who don't have millions of dollars and big name recognition.
"To suggest that women will only be elected by other women is absurd."