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Sparks fly in final GOP gubernatorial primary debate

SHARE Sparks fly in final GOP gubernatorial primary debate

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, left, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. answer questions during a virtual forum featuring the Republican primary gubernatorial candidates at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — There was plenty of friction during the final debate between the four Republican candidates for governor in Utah’s June 30 primary, including over whether the state responded quickly enough when a protest in Salt Lake City turned violent.

Early in the two-hour KUTV-2 debate Tuesday, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes said Gov. Gary Herbert should have deployed the Utah National Guard sooner during the May 30 protest in downtown Salt Lake City that saw a police car and another vehicle overturned and set ablaze, as well as looting and destruction, including defacing the state Capitol.

Asked if the state used sufficient force, Hughes said, “Not at all. It was four hours of unabated, uninterrupted violence. It could have been stopped earlier on. It got so out of hand they had to call law enforcement from multiple jurisdictions, had to call and deploy the National Guard.”

Given that unrest had already erupted around the country after a black man, George Floyd, died in Minneapolis on May 25 with the knee of a white police officer on his neck, Hughes suggested the state should have been prepared and is within its right to do “whatever it would take to make sure that lawlessness does not run unabated.”

The other candidates in the race — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright — all addressed the issue during the debate, held in the Regent Street Black Box at The Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City.

“There is a difference between protesting and rioting and the people of Utah understand that,” Cox said. “I’m very proud of our police officers and the way they protected the peaceful rights of protestors to get their message out. I’m proud of our National Guardsmen, who stepped up in very difficult circumstances.”

The lieutenant governor said the Herbert administration is already addressing law enforcement concerns, including banning chokeholds by state law enforcement officials last week. Cox said he has “not met a racist cop in this state. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there. It’s very possible there are. ... But we have to change the policies.”

But Huntsman, who served as governor from 2005 until he resigned in 2009 to become U.S. ambassador to China and later filled the same post in Russia, said seeing the military sent into the streets of those countries showed they had “failed in the most basic task, to carry on a meaningful dialogue with those with whom you disagree.”

Speaking from a sequestered area of the theater because he has COVID-19, Huntsman said “leadership is about locking arms” with both law enforcement and “also those who have grievances. We are a civil society. This is how we operate. We don’t send in the heavy artillery unless it’s an admission of failure.”

Wright said he believes the governor was “a little late” in sending in the National Guard and should have been ready since “it was pretty obvious when the crowd was forming, that there was the possibility there was going to be vandalism and some unruly behavior.”

He said that “no matter what you’re protesting, you have the right to do that. But when a protest turns to violence, it turns to arson and it turns to destruction of personal property, it closes businesses or vandalizes businesses, then that’s when they overstepped the bounds. I do believe in law and order in that case. We have to take action.”

In the first hour of the debate, each candidate was interviewed separately and in the second hour, three of the candidates appeared together onstage, while Huntsman, who announced last week he’d tested positive for coronavirus and has been campaigning from isolation in his home, joined in virtually.

Not surprisingly, the state’s response to COVID-19 also fueled tensions. Just as in the Utah Debate Commission debate earlier this month, Huntsman, Hughes and Wright took issue with Cox’s role as the head of the coronavirus task force and the administration spending millions on no-bid contracts for testing and other expenses.

“Every dime that was spent is public,” Cox said, and the contracts have been released to the news media. “There is nothing hidden. Everyone in the state can see how the money was spent.” He also said the funds came from the federal government.

Huntsman, who said his family went “through absolute hell” because he was initially told he didn’t have the virus and later, that he had to retake the test, asked why Utah Auditor John Dougall is examining the contracts “if we had everything we needed via transparency,” and why that audit won’t be completed until after the primary.

Wright said he would not allow no-bid contracts as governor. He said he still hasn’t heard what happened to some $100 million spent on the virus. “I’d like to know where that money is and so would a lot of taxpayers,” the real estate company founder said.

Cox, Wright and Hughes all agreed the state should not mandate that Utahns be vaccinated if a vaccine for the deadline virus becomes available. Hughes said the governor should ensure the federal government doesn’t compel behavior through its “heavy hand,”

The winner of the state’s first four-way gubernatorial primary election on June 30 will face Democrat Chris Peterson, a University of Utah law professor, in the November election. Herbert, who has served as governor for more than a decade, is not seeking reelection.