SALT LAKE CITY — The four Republicans running in this month’s 4th Congressional District primary to take on Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, sparred during their first debate Monday over issues including the city’s response to a protest that turned violent and how the COVID-19 pandemic is being handled.
State Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan; former NFL player Burgess Owens; former KSL Newsradio host Jay Mcfarland; and nonprofit CEO Trent Christensen said little about McAdams during the hourlong debate held without an audience in the PBS Utah studios at the University of Utah.
The candidates did, however, offer different views about how far government should go, starting with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s decision to issue a curfew Saturday that lasted until Monday morning in the wake of riots against the death of a man at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
Coleman said the daytime curfew was apparently unique to Utah, and compared it to some of the government restrictions put into place to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, She said no matter what crisis, people should stand up for their rights.
“People have asked me frequently, ‘Can the government do this to me? Can they tell me I have to stay in my home, shut my business down? Can they really put out a hotline to snitch on your neighbors?’ And I say, ‘Yes, yes they can. If we let them,’” Coleman said.
Mcfarland, though, said there are times when personal liberties need to be rescinded briefly “to save lives, to save businesses. That’s what happened in Salt Lake. That’s what mayors and governors have been trying to balance throughout this country. The Constitution is not a death sentence.”
Christensen, who had praised Mendenall for being able to “bring the temperature down” and said the media was vilifying the police, jumped in.
“I don’t think there is ever a time when you are allowed to rescind personal liberties — ever,” he said, adding that he believes the curfew was constitutional. “We had inciters that were screaming and flipping over police cars and torching police cars and someone with a crossbow. Those people need to be stopped.”
Owens said for there to be a such a protest in Utah, “somebody had to come in and get it done. I think in the most part, we cut it down pretty quickly.” But he said mayors must recognize what he described as the socialist “enemy” behind the violent turn taken at protests around the country against the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.
“There’s no question, this is wrong. There’s no debate about the heinous act that was done. The problem comes down to the response,” Owens said, blaming what he called a false “narrative that the leftists are giving, that we are such a divided, hateful country” for turning conflicts between blacks and police into national issues.
The candidates also split over dealing with the deadly coronavirus, with only Mcfarland saying he regularly wears a mask in public.
“I don’t understand who’s making you wear a mask,” Mcfarland said, adding, “Nobody has a gun to your head. Part of exercising personal liberty is to do so responsibly. What happened to love thy neighbor? What happened to civil respect for other people? I wear a mask when I’m in public for that reason.”
Christensen said he would wear a masked if asked to at a business, “but I believe it’s a choice. I don’t have a problem with masks. What I do have a problem with is being told I have to wear a mask. That’s not how we do things in America.” He said the same would be true if a vaccine for the virus becomes available.
Coleman said she doesn’t “generally wear a mask in public but I do try to honor and respect the distancing.” Owens said he doesn’t wear a mask, citing what he described as “conflicted information that’s not good for our country.”
As for additional federal stimulus to counter the economic impacts of COVID-19, Christensen said he would support it going only to states that have reopened “100% as of June 15. And the states that aren’t open on June 15, they don’t get that money. ... We have to give a carrot and a stick approach.”
Coleman suggested suspending payroll taxes through the end of the year, which she said would amount to a 7% pay increase for most people. Mcfarland said more needs to be done quickly for employers and employees to keep the country out of another Great Depression while Owens said Democrats are holding the country hostage.
The candidates also jostled over who was best to take on McAdams, recently named the 10th-most vulnerable member of Congress seeking reelection. The former Salt Lake County mayor won the seat in 2018 from Republican Rep. Mia Love by less than 700 votes and does not have a primary opponent.
Mcfarland said he’s a moderate who can compete in a district that chose a moderate Democrat two years ago in McAdams. “What makes you think that suddenly they’re going to chose an extreme conservative? They’re not. They’re going to look for a moderate to represent them,” he said. “That’s who I am.”
Owens described himself as the only Republican in his family and someone who would never “negotiate or compromise with anyone who hates my country because they have a totally different end game.” He said he hopes to be part of a new group of “patriots” who wrest control away from Democrats in the House.
Christensen, who helped now Utah Sen. Mitt Romney raise money for his 2012 presidential bid, said Republicans should be focused on getting people back to work. He emphasized his background in business and said he’s running for Congress as “a traditional conservative” who can help Utahns get their jobs back.
Coleman pointed to her record of voting “constitutionally, conservatively” in her six years serving in the Utah Legislature and said, “With me, I’ve done it,” she said, adding, “If you vote for me, you don’t have to vote in hope. You can vote for me and know.”
The debate was the first in a series of debates among candidates on the June 30 primary ballot sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission that continue through Tuesday.