SALT LAKE CITY — As Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris sparred inside Kingsbury Hall — including occasionally interrupting each other and ignoring the moderator’s repeated pleas to stop talking — hundreds of protesters verbally jousted on the streets off campus.
Demonstrators of all kinds, including a group of Armenians waving red, blue and orange flags, started gathering outside the perimeter of the vice presidential debate venue at the University of Utah in the hours before the debate began.
People wearing Make America Great Again hats and carrying large Trump flags outnumbered anyone rallying for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, though the group of Armenians, some of whom traveled to Utah from other states, stood front and center protesting Turkish atrocities against their country.
Police in riot gear arrived just as the debate began to separate groups heatedly shouting “Black lives matter” and “All lives matter” back and forth at each other.
After the debate started, chanting protesters walked down University Street to the intersection of 200 South where they were engaged and eventually surrounded by supporters of President Donald Trump. The heated exchanges prompted police to move through the tightly packed crowd to separate the two sides.
Within 15 minutes of the debate’s start, dozens of officers in riot gear and face shields formed a line between the two sides, although many people ran around them to argue with those of the opposing side. Police eventually parked three vans in the intersection.
University of Utah police said one person was arrested for disturbing the peace but no other details were available.
Meanwhile, a man played a saxophone, including several hymns and the national anthem, as loud as possible as the groups yelled at each other. The crowd seemed oblivious that a debate was going on, though at least one man was watching it on his phone.
One of the biggest moments was a fly landing on Pence’s head during the middle of the debate. It ignited a social media firestorm, as people across the country — including Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell — reacted to the moment.
“Is that a fly???” Mitchell tweeted.
“That fly is an American hero,” tweeted actress Gabrielle Union.
Most social media users cracked jokes about wanting to hear from the fly, and what its political stance might be for the upcoming election.
Within minutes of the debate ending, a Twitter account with the handle @MikePenceFly had appeared and was quickly gaining followers. Tweets from the account joked, “If you could land on one person’s head for 5 minutes, who would it be?” and “Everyone jealous because I got the best seat for the debate tonight.”
Otherwise, a lot of the social media reactions centered on the candidates not answering the questions. And, of course, there were a lot of responses to the interruptions, the blanket statements and the slow-moving nature of the debate.
Although she wasn’t in the hall, an eighth grader at Springville Junior High also had a moment in the limelight. Moderator Susan Page used Brecklynn Brown’s essay written for a Utah Debate Commission contest as the final question to Pence and Harris.
“When I watch the news, all I see is arguing between Democrats and Republicans. When I watch the news, all I see is citizen fighting against citizen. When I watch the news, all I see are two candidates from opposing parties trying to tear each other down,” Brown wrote. “If our leaders can’t get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?”
Brecklynn’s family declined a Deseret News request to have her talk about her experience of having her question asked on national TV, but a school district spokeswoman sent a prepared statement from her:
“It was both shocking and amazing to be able to ask a question to Vice President Pence and Sen. Harris! It felt good to be heard, and I appreciate their responses. I’m so glad a question that meant so much to me also meant so much to other Americans. As we were talking in my history class about the many issues happening in our country, I realized the importance of listening and respecting each other. I hope we can all try a little harder to understand one another and that we can all do our part to unite our country.”
Karen Hale, Utah Debate Commission co-chairwoman, said the commission was thrilled that the last question came from one of the contest winners.
Outside Kingsbury Hall where a large platform accommodated dozens of TV cameras and reporters, University of Utah President Ruth Watkins posed for photos with student leaders.
“I think it is such an important thing to be involved in the civic process. We know it’s important to our students,” she said, adding the debate is an opportunity to showcase the university.
The crowd on the other side of the secure perimeter was thrilled at the sight of two motorcades, one carrying Harris and the other Pence to the debate venue. Both were led by Utah Highway Patrol motorcycle officers and had multiple SUVs with military personnel inside.
A group of students dressed in red, white and blue sitting in a small boat flying the American flag a little farther down the street from the debate venue turned the event into a drinking game.
“You honk, we drink,” read the sign written on the inside of cardboard box that once contained beer.
“I think it’s best to not make a political statement,” said one of the young men, adding that he and his friends are more about unity.
Jarom Shaver and Catherine Rousculp were among 60 University of Utah students who were lucky enough to have their names drawn in a raffle for tickets to the event. Both called it a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“I think the vice president and Sen. Harris were far better at advocating for their campaigns in this debate than the president and Joe Biden were at advocating for their campaigns,” said Shaver, a Trump-Pence supporter.
The third-year law student deemed Pence the winner.
Shaver said he liked that Pence advocated for freedoms and rightly called out Harris for saying the Biden campaign wasn’t going to raise taxes.
“I liked how he pinned Harris down with her record as a prosecutor and packing the Supreme Court,” he said.
Shaver also said it was a “special moment” when Pence thanked and congratulated Harris.
“It was something that America needed to see, that even though they disagreed on policy, they could still be courteous and kind,” he said.
Rousculp, a sophomore in biology who favors the Biden-Harris ticket, said it was nice to see a greater level of discourse and decorum between the two candidates than Trump and Biden displayed at the first presidential debate.
“It was nice to hear what the candidates had to say about their policies, their plans and their past,” she said.
Republican attorneys general attacked Harris earlier Wednesday, characterizing their former peer as the “original lawless liberal.”
At a press conference in downtown Salt Lake City, the Republican Attorney Generals Association condemned what they say are the California senator’s positions on immigration, gun rights, policing and other issues.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge called Harris dangerous and divisive.
“She had no business being the attorney general of California with her disregard for the rule of law. She has no business being a U.S. senator, and Kamala Harris certainly has no business being the vice president of the United States to a frail and failing president if Joe Biden were to be elected,” she said.
Harris served as attorney general of California for seven years before being elected to the Senate in 2016.
Meantime, a mobile billboard supporting Harris traversed the Utah campus and downtown Salt Lake City.
The UltraViolet PAC, a national women’s advocacy organization, paid for the sign in response to what it calls the racist and sexist attacks against her since Biden chose her as his running mate. The sign read: “Kamala is ready to help rebuild a country that works for us all.”
Harris stands in stark contrast to Pence, who is “one of the most openly anti-woman, anti-Black, anti-queer and anti-immigrant elected officials in America,” Shaunna Thomas, executive director of UltraViolet, said in a statement.
“We need representatives who truly believe equality applies to everyone, not just white men. We are confident that Sen. Harris will hold the current administration accountable on these issues at the podium,” she said.
Summit County resident Samantha Henderson said Harris’ policies reflect the values of Utah women, including prioritizing land protection from the impact of climate change, ensuring access to health care for all and equity in the workplace, regardless of gender or race.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said he talked to Pence’s team as recently as 3 a.m. Wednesday and the vice president was “laser-focused” and “locked in” for the debate.
Reyes said Harris favors defunding police and has used “dangerous rhetoric” to encourage lawless mobs, rioters and looters across the country.
“Harris is a danger to law and order because she refuses to condemn loudly and clearly the lawlessness and the violence that has beset our nations in so many cities,” he said.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, also took aim in a Fox News op-ed Wednesday, saying Biden would be the oldest person elected to a first term as president and Harris “already seems to be measuring the drapes.”
“Just last month she referred to ‘a Harris administration’ before correcting herself by adding ‘Biden-Harris administration,’” he wrote.
Lee wrote that the progressive policies that a Harris-Biden administration want to “inflict” on the rest of the country have made California unlivable for middle-class Americans.
Guests and rallies
State Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, and West Valley resident Deborah Gatrell were among the Biden campaign’s guests at the debate. Gatrell, a former Blackhawk helicopter pilot, is a Hunter High School teacher and candidate for Salt Lake County Council. Former Democratic state Sen. Scott Howell, a key Biden surrogate, and Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant also attended.
Before the debate, Romero said she expected both candidates would comport themselves better than Trump and Biden did in their only debate so far.
“I expect class and respect. I’ve seen Sen. Harris in debates before. She’s strong and she’s a role model. I think she will represent us well on the stage. I expect the same from the vice president as well,” she said.
“I’ve seen Pence and I’ve seen Sen. Harris, and I think this is going to be a much better debate, and I think it’s going to be more informed,” said Hollins, the only Black state lawmaker.
Gov. Gary Herbert was also in the hall for the debate.
Two state lawmakers, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, and Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, attended at the invitation of debate sponsor Anheuser-Busch. They passed legislation allowing Utah grocery stores to sell heavy beer.
Several other events were planned Wednesday preceding the debate.
University of Utah Students for a Democratic Society marched from the Federal Building downtown to Kingsbury Hall, the campus venue hosting the debate. The group demanded protection and expansion of rights for all regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, nationality, religion or immigration status.
Republicans students gathered at the Union Building on campus and walked to Kingsbury Hall to rally in support of Pence.
Another group, the Utah Live Events Industry Association, planned a “peaceful” rally at the Salt Lake City-County Building to help draw attention to the difficulties businesses have faced in the pandemic. The association includes businesses that put on concerts, corporate gatherings, weddings and sporting events.
Brewvies, a downtown cinema pub, hosted a watch party for the debate.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic significantly reduced the number of people expected in Salt Lake City, the debate brings 2,500 people to the city this week who have booked 7,500 room nights in local hotels, according to the Downtown Alliance and the Salt Lake Chamber. Visitors include members of the media, campaign officials, security and the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Contributing: Herb Scribner