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Little Lee and his big ambition

Lee Castillo

On Independence Day, firefighters battling the Dollar Ridge Fire in Duchesne County got a surprise. It was a car full of watermelons driven by a social worker with congressional aspirations.

“What’s more refreshing on a summer day than a watermelon?” said Lee Castillo, Utah Congressional District 1’s Democratic candidate. “It’s something hydrating and healthy.”

Though his grassroots campaign is working on a tight budget, Castillo said he wanted “to make sure the firefighters knew someone was appreciative of their actions to help our people in that community.”

With the eager assistance of Fruitland grocery store employees, Lee packed his car with the watermelons and drove to the tent city down the road, where 857 firefighters slept in shifts to battle the blaze. That same day, after appearing in Duchesne’s Fourth of July parade, he delivered supplies to a local high school. Then he took another treat to Fruitland residents who had lost their homes — saltwater taffy, a Utah favorite.

“Those small things are what drive me,” he said.

Castillo’s campaign, on the other hand, has not been a small thing. Since defeating primary opponent Kurt Weiland by over 2,000 votes in June, Castillo has been campaigning all over his mostly rural district, which covers Northern Utah and stretches down to Uintah and Duchesne Counties. He appeared in Layton’s Fourth of July parade while his campaign float traveled the parade route in Kaysville. He has also campaigned in Park City, Clearfield, locations in Weber and Uintah counties, and Tremonton.

The Utah Democratic Party also doesn’t see his candidacy as a small thing. He received endorsements from 13 state Democratic caucuses, Senator Jim Dabakis, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, and March for Our Lives SLC.

“We’ve been pretty active in getting our names out there,” he said. “It’s only been a short time, but we’ll cover a lot of ground, and we’ll continue to make sure people understand there’s an alternative to a career politician.”

Republicans have represented UT-01 for 36 years. James V. Hansen served from 1981 to January of 2003, when incumbent Rob Bishop replaced the retiring congressman. The length of both their tenures — 22 years for Hansen and 15 so far for Bishop — are what people generally have in mind when they refer to career politicians.

Castillo, however, says he offers something different — a caring, constant presence to represent every member of his district, regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or political affiliation. It’s a need encapsulated in the name of his campaign website: Utah Is for Everybody.

“A Social Worker before I Was A Social Worker”

As a social worker employed by the Provo-based Utah State Hospital, Castillo is no stranger to traveling all over Utah. An employee of Provo-based Utah State Hospital, he works with severely mentally ill clients in county jails ranging from Salt Lake City to Box Elder County, and all the way east to Uintah County.

“I think I was a social worker before I was a social worker,” he explained. “I’ve always cared about people. A lot of that comes from my own life experience.”

The descendant of Latino farm workers in Layton, Castillo said he is proud of his rural past and knows the value of “that hard work and what it does for you.”

When he came out to his family, he said that only his mother, grandparents, and baby brother accepted him.

“I remember praying to a picture of Jesus and crying, asking [him] to change me,” he said. “My dad and I had an estranged relationship most of my life.”

“A lot of that has changed, and my family accepts me fully,” he said, adding that he and his father have reconciled. “I wish more LGBTQ people with the same past experiences could get the healing from family, community and workplace acceptance.”

As a youth, Castillo was homeless for a while before taken in by a friend’s family.

“It breaks a kid’s spirit to hear they’re not the same as everyone else, that there’s something wrong with them,” he said. “It took me a long time to realize I’m who God intended me to be and nobody has the right to condemn me and tell me I don’t have the right to have a relationship with God because I’m gay.”

“I’ve had people spit in my drinks and all over my car [because I’m gay],” he continued. “But the thing is, I get up, and I keep going because the anger and the hate these people are feeling toward me is not going to hold me down.”

His childhood experiences have made Castillo particularly concerned for youth. He said his fears for his two sons (one adopted, one foster), nieces, and nephews in Donald Trump’s America spurred him to use his tax return to file for office.

“I felt it was a calling if you will,” he explained. “And I felt prompted to run for office after watching on TV this presidential administration breaking down the pillars of what makes America great and permitting people to hate and opening the door to people who are blatantly prejudiced. I couldn’t stand the idea of my kids or my nieces and nephews growing up in an America where they could be beaten, targeted, or harassed because of the color of their skin.”

As a social worker running for office, healthcare is one of several large planks in Castillo’s campaign. He supports single-payer universal healthcare and the federal reclassification of medical cannabis as a schedule 2 drug so as to treat illnesses such as seizure disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Castillo said that his previous work with the Department of Child and Family Services and his work with severely mentally ill people in Utah’s county jails have made him realize the importance of universal healthcare.

“I know as a social worker that when somebody feels better, when somebody is healthy and has access to their doctors and meds and mental health services they can then function in a family, at their jobs, and in society. And when you’re sick, and you live paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford your insurance, you end up being on the other end,” he said. “When I worked for DCFS I saw things that could’ve been prevented if services had been regularly available.”

Castillo stressed that his campaign’s focus is on middle-class and lower-income people, particularly those who struggle to get by. If elected, he said that he will strive for the repeal of the “Trump tax break,” a nickname given to last year’s controversial tax plan that narrowly passed the U.S. Senate. Critics have accused it of giving tax breaks to big corporations and wealthy Americans at the expense of lower earners.

“I will propose legislation to [undo] that … that speaks to the diverse amount of people that live in UT-01,” he said. “We don’t just have [wealthy] people here, but those who are on welfare and people who are middle class like me, who live paycheck to paycheck.”

Protecting the Environment, Protecting People

A desire to protect Utah’s beautiful, fragile environment is a large part of Castillo’s campaign. If elected, he said he would work to reinstate EPA regulations that safeguard clean air, a problem that pollution-plagued Northern Utah has struggled with for decades. He will also work to restore Bear’s Ears, and the Grand Escalante Staircase Monument to their sizes put forth under Barack Obama’s administration. In December of 2017, Trump visited Utah to announce the controversial scaling back of both monuments. Dozens of American Indian tribes and pueblos regard the territory covered by the Bears Ears Monument as sacred. Several are suing the administration to reverse these changes. The lawsuit is pending.

“The tribes here in Utah are not just Utah citizens, they have their sovereignty, and we have to have government-to-government communication [about the monuments], not just a one-time meeting with hand-selected individuals who favor your idea of a land grab, but the leadership in those tribes who hold that land sacred,” he said.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable with someone drilling for oil in the backyard of my church or my home, but we have a congressman who keeps trying to open up those lands, which is not only detrimental to our economy but further alienates this population which has already lost so much.”

Castillo said he is disappointed in Bishop’s leadership because he not only feels the congressman is out of touch with his district, but that he is beholden to oil and gas interests. Indeed, the Center for Responsive Politics notes that oil and gas concerns have been among the top donors to Bishop’s campaigns throughout his career in Washington. Bishop faced criticism for efforts to repeal the Endangered Species Act and for voting to cut EPA funding. The League of Conservation Voters gave him a zero percent rating for the 2017 legislative year.

“The congressman is against allowing the development of clean energy because of his loyalties,” said Castillo. He noted that as dependence on fossil fuels lessens, the effect on the workers in his district, particularly those in Uintah County’s oil fields, worries him.

“I care about their future and not just a dollar sign,” he said. “Anybody who isn’t beholden to somebody should say, we should diversify what we’re doing in these areas and even offer companies tax breaks to incentivize the creation of jobs for clean energy resources development. I think that’s important not just for Utah not to be left behind, but for the families.”

“When you focus on oil and gas, you lose sight of the beauty of Utah,” he continued. “Utah is a recreational mecca. We make more money from people coming to visit our state than on oil extraction.”

Bishop’s apparent refusal to stand against the separation of immigrant families at the U.S. border frustrates him, Castillo says. Though Bishop expressed relief in a press release that family separations had ended, he has said little on the subject.

“When he had the opportunity to take a stand against the president and this administration, he didn’t,” Castillo said. “He’s forgotten about the people he serves.”

A Path to Victory

Some may think that winning a district that hasn’t elected a Democrat since the 1970s will be difficult for Castillo, particularly because of his sexuality. For him, however, that isn’t a concern.

“Being gay is a small part of who I am. There are so many other things people can relate to,” he said. In fact, he said that his sexuality doesn’t even come up when talking to constituents.

“People want to know what I’m going to do for them. They aren’t interested in my sex life,” he said. “It isn’t relevant to the job I can do, because the job I do already serving people in these communities has nothing to do with my sexual orientation but what’s in my heart and what’s right.”

“I was able to see the humanity from everybody who came out to support the people affected by the Dollar Ridge Fire,” he said. “it was a humbling moment to know I was just like everybody else. I am there to help, to donate, to care.”

“I wish that all of our politicians would take the time to go and check on the people they represent who are hurting,” he continued. “It’s important not to lose sight of who you serve. From the parades in Duchesne to taking supplies to the high school to [visiting] the firemen’s tent city, it’s just a reminder that Utah is a wonderful place to live because [Utahns] care what happens, even if the politicians who represent us have lost sight of it.”

To learn more about Lee Castillo’s campaign, visit UtahIsForEverybody.com

PHOTO courtesy of Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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JoSelle Vanderhooft

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