SALT LAKE CITY — What was described as the politicization of the state’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic fired up the Utah Debate Commission debate Monday among the four Republican candidates for governor competing in this month’s primary election.
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright were all critical of fellow candidate Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox for heading up the state task force on the deadly virus while running for office and for how some $100 million was spent on testing and other contracts.
But Cox shot back, “What has been said is absolutely right in one sense and that is that the politicization of this disease is awful and the only people playing politics with this disease are the people on this stage.”
Utah, he said, is “better off than any other state in the country and the people of Utah know that.”
Huntsman said not only has there “been absolutely no accountability” for the expenditures, “the only people able to campaign and politicize have been those in the governor’s office, using the platform, using it as a bully pulpit. This is absolutely absurd, while we sit under house arrest and try to do our best to run a campaign.”
Wright said Cox’s statement was not fair, coming from a candidate in the race for almost two years as a sitting elected official.
“This is why we see this unrest,” Wright said, referring to the protests over the death of a black man in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck. “People are frustrated with their government and they don’t trust their elected officials.”
Hughes took issue with a short-lived attempt by the state to track people coming into Utah through an alert on their phones, “communist-style snitch hotlines” in some places, and the closure of churches as well as “single-source, no-bid contracts” given out despite some companies being willing to provide services at no costs.
However, Hughes disagreed with Huntsman’s contention that the way to avoid politicizing the pandemic was to have put a public health official in charge of the state task force. “The buck stops with our public servants,” the former speaker said, noting generals don’t make the final decision to go to war.
Cox suggested the other candidates “get their facts straight,” pointing out that responding was voluntary to the phone alert while crossing state lines. He said that “certainly in hindsight, there are some things that we could have done differently. But by and large, we have had a tremendous response to the coronavirus crisis.”
Afterwards, the lieutenant governor told reporters he had no regrets about his role as head of the task force and said Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office, “has been in charge of this response from the very beginning, no question about that,” and that his role was organizational.
Cox said he would “not hesitate” to appoint his running mate, state Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, in a similar role and compared his appointment by Herbert to Vice President Mike Pence being named the head of President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 response effort.
The candidates also addressed the response to the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, including a protest in Salt Lake City that turned violent. Shortly before the 6 p.m. debate in the PBS Utah studios at the University of Utah, Trump said he would deploy U.S, troops to states that don’t fully utilize their National Guard units.
Huntsman, who served as Trump’s U.S. ambassador to Russia, said he would want to talk to the president about whether law enforcement has been given enough appreciation for “restraint that was shown in the face of anarchy” and then bring up seeing military vehicles deployed and curfews imposed.
“I would say, ‘Mr. President, I am concerned about civil liberties. This is not what we see in the state of Utah. Maybe others, but not here. This is what you see in other countries. We have the ability to manage our own situation, thank you very much,’” Huntsman said.
Herbert activated the Utah National Guard on Saturday and Cox said the destructive behavior seen in Salt Lake City, that included burning two vehicles and defacing public and private property, was rightly met by strength because “we must have law and order.”
“Let’s be very clear. The death of George Floyd was a murder and there is no place for police brutality in America. We know that and we have to stand up strong,” Cox said. “At the same time, these lawful protests that are taking place have been hijacked by agents of chaos, by people who don’t care about the movement at all.”
Hughes said there’s a big difference between a protest and a riot. While he said he counts himself among those protesting “the outrage, the murder that we did truly see before our eyes,” rioters striving to create civil unrest have to be dealt with “head-on.”
The former speaker said he agrees with Trump that states have to be tough, citing enforcement of efforts to stop the virus spread. “If you’re going to go and go find quarantine issues to bring down the law but you’re not going to let these issues be handled and you’re going to let these rioters go, that’s a deal-killer.”
Wright said he is “very uncomfortable” with what happened to Floyd and said as governor, he’d institute additional training for both new and current law enforcement officers in the state to ensure “they are listening and learning and we’re being compassionate with each other and we can take action on racial inequality.”
Also during the debate, Hughes raised the issue of Democratic voters, including former Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, registering as Republicans to vote in the party’s closed primary, calling it “brazen behavior” intended to stop him from winning as the most conservative candidate.
Huntsman, who stepped down shortly after being elected to a second term to serve as President Barack Obama’s U.S. ambassador to China, touted his experience and leadership, while Wright spoke of being an outsider who continues to run a real estate business as a candidate.
Cox said he’s running because he loves the state and believes better times are ahead. He promised to “get my hands dirty” working side-by-side with Utahns.
“Politics in this country is broken,” the lieutenant governor said, “but it’s not broken in Utah.”