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3rd District race: John Curtis touts accomplishments; James Singer seeks to expand social safety net

Democrat James Courage Singer is challenging Rep. John Curtis for his seat in Utah's 3rd Congressional District.
Democrat James Courage Singer is challenging Rep. John Curtis for his seat in Utah's 3rd Congressional District.
Deseret News composite photo

PROVO — The newest member of Utah's all-Republican congressional delegation, Rep. John Curtis, said he hasn't taken a break from running for the 3rd District seat, even after winning last year's special election.

"I've been campaigning for a year and a half. I'm looking forward to November," said Curtis, elected a year ago to finish the term of former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who resigned from office and became a Fox News contributor.

In his first bid for Congress, Curtis won a contentious three-way primary that brought nearly $1 million in largely negative ads to Utah before defeating competitive Democratic and United Utah Party candidates.

He found himself in a primary again this year against one of the same candidates he faced in 2017, former state lawmaker Chris Herrod, after falling just 12 votes shy of securing the GOP nomination from delegates to the party's state convention.

After easily winning this year's Republican primary with more than 73 percent of the vote, Curtis is once again on the November ballot. He and Democrat James Courage Singer face off Tuesday in a Utah Debate Commission televised debate.

Singer, a sociology professor at Salt Lake Community College, told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards that visiting his Navajo grandmother as a child in a hogan that didn't have electricity despite nearby power lines helped motivate him to run.

So did seeing the massive protests against an oil pipeline led by the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota and President Donald Trump's overturning of the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument intended to protect Native American artifacts.

"I think my voice lends itself well to this race at this point in time," Singer said. "I look at government specifically as something that is supposed to protect and empower its citizens. This is probably different than maybe a lot of folks."

He said if elected to Congress, his goal would be to find ways to expand the social safety net because "when there's a robust welfare state, poverty rates are low. That's how that works. We tend to see that stigmatized."

Singer, who describes himself as a social Democrat in the mold of former presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, said his campaign isn't about attacking the incumbent but bringing up issues "at a value level."

That's because while most people don't care about politics, they are responsive to talking about the values that are important to them, Singer said.

His campaign stands include restoring the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, backing a single-payer health care system to provide what he sees as a basic human right, and empowering workers by supporting labor unions.

"I may hold positions on the left that people on the right don't want to listen to, but the teacher in me wants to find the connection," Singer said. "That is what is sorely needed in our politics, just more understanding, more empathy, more responsiblity to each other."

Curtis said his message for voters is what he's been able to do since taking office in November 2017 to represent the district that includes parts of Salt Lake and Utah counties as well as San Juan, Emery, Grand, Carbon and Wasatch counties.

"For me, it's a time of accountability, what have I done with my year. That's what most people are asking," Curtis said, adding that voters seem to like what they're hearing. Indeed, a recent poll gave Curtis a 65-19 percent lead over Singer.

The congressman said rather than buying advertising, he's "invested in what I would call the face-to-face time," holding town hall meetings throughout the district when he's not in Washington, D.C.

"They love the outreach, they love the town hall meetings. They love the accessibility, that my style is kind of one of listening. They like that a lot," Curtis said, as well as his specific accomplishments.

The newcomer has already passed five bills in the U.S. House, and one, a study intended to prevent opioid abuse during pregnancy, is part of a package of legislation expected to be signed into law by Trump.

Curtis also cites his efforts on public lands issues in Emery County, including a conservation proposal along with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that features protections for the San Rafael Swell conservation area and a new Jurassic National Monument.

Voters, however, "are very unhappy" with the lack of progress by Congress on immigration issues, Curtis said, although they're not blaming him at this point since he voted for failed legislation.

Also a factor in the campaign is the Republican president's relative unpopularity in a GOP-dominated state. Curtis said he's been accused of both not backing Trump enough and of being too strong of a supporter.

"It's kind of funny that much of it is in the eye of the beholder," he said. Curtis said he backs the president on tax reform and deregulation, but disagrees with him on trade and detaining children at the U.S. border with Mexico.

"When I come across things that I disagree with, then I speak up," he said, including against Trump's public statements and tweets, such as using an expletive to describe Haiti and some African countries during an immigration discussion.

"Constituents know that when he crosses the line with values that are out of line with the 3rd District, they'll hear from me and that I'll speak up and represent them," Curtis said.

If Democrats succeed in taking over the House in November's midterm elections, Curtis and the rest of Utah's all-Republican delegation would be in the minority and face the possibility of voting on impeaching Trump.

But Curtis said that's not likely to happen.

"I don't even believe the Democrats want to impeach him. I think it's all talk," he said, noting a special counsel investigation has yet to conclude. "I think if they get control, I'll bet you see they back off that. You don't have an impeachable offense."

Curtis said it's still a jarring adjustment every time he travels between Utah and the nation's capital, "like somebody woke me up out of dream," but that he and his wife enjoy their time in Washington and have an apartment there.

"I would emphasize how honored I am to serve in this capacity," he said. "I frequently look up at tha Capitol, and say to myself, 'Wow, I get to go to work there.'"

There is also a United Utah Party candidate in the race, Tim Zeidner, who was recruited to run by the state's newest political party after another candidate, Melanie McCord, withdrew for health reasons.

Zeidner, director of research and evaluation at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Missionary Training Center in Provo, said he hopes to bring awareness to a party he sees as able to break through the dysfunction in Washington.

Also on the ballot in the 3rd Congressional District is Independent American Party candidate Gregory C. Duerden.