SALT LAKE CITY — Although ballots went out last week, voters might still be trying to decide who to get behind in the hotly contested Republican primary election for attorney general.
Utah County Attorney David Leavitt has mounted a strong challenge to incumbent Attorney General Sean Reyes in a race that is largely overshadowed by the high-profile candidates seeking the GOP nomination for governor.
But there have been plenty of sparks between Reyes and Leavitt as they battle for votes among those who have yet to make up their minds. A recent polls showed Reyes with a slim margin over Leavitt, though nearly half of voters were undecided.
That’s a good thing for Leavitt, maybe not so much for Reyes, who is seeking a second full term after being appointed in late 2013 and winning election in 2016.
“If you’ve been in office for seven years, and you’ve got half of the electorate undecided, that should scream loudly and clearly that people are looking for a change,” Leavitt said.
Reyes said he doesn’t necessarily see the high number of undecided voters as a negative but an opportunity to make his case. He said he feels good about his campaign, pointing to endorsements from legislators, city and county officials and other leaders.
Reyes said he has “stood watch over the state” during his time in office, protecting Utahns from child sex predators, street drugs, fraud, school violence and suicide as well as safeguarding their private information from online hackers and cybercriminals.
“It hasn’t been easy working 12- to 15-hour days up and down the state, traveling sometimes to D.C., Supreme Court, White House, Congress to bring back wins and resources to the state of Utah,” he said at a recent debate.
Reyes said he knows his public service is making a difference whether people see it or not.
Leavitt has pinned his campaign on revamping the criminal justice system and ethics in the attorney general’s office.
“Whether I win this race or whether I lose this race, I’ve accomplished my objective. My objective was to shine a bright light on the need for criminal justice reform and this race has been all about that,” he said.
The winner of the June 30 Republican primary will face Democrat Greg Skordas and Libertarian Rudy Bautista in the general election Nov. 3.
As Utahns call for police reform and an end to racial inequality, the attorney general — the state’s top cop — has a role to play in addressing those issues.
Leavitt said it starts with acknowledging that there is a problem.
“What you’re seeing all over the country are people who are on the outside of the system having what I will call a national criminal justice intervention with those of us in the system,” he said.
Change, he said, won’t come without changing the hearts and minds of those in the system.
“There’s not a single human on the planet who doesn’t have a sort of implicit bias against another group of people who are different than they are. The difference is when the predominant race or group, if the predominant group has the police power, that makes implicit bias all the more scary, all the more difficult if you’re in that minority group,” he said.
Reyes, whose father is of Filipino and Spanish descent and his mother is of native Hawaiian and Japanese descent, said he understands what it’s like to be a minority.
“I feel very acutely the pain of people who feel discriminated against, who feel marginalized, made to feel, as I have sometimes, less than human,” he said.
As attorney general, Reyes said he can influence how police agencies train officers and work with lawmakers to bring about reform, noting legislators consulted with him for a newly passed law banning knee-on-the-neck holds.
“If the A.G. is not involved in those discussions, if the A.G. is not helping use his or her power to convene, then it’s a wasted opportunity and it’s not true leadership,” he said.
Reyes and Leavitt agree that defunding police departments isn’t the answer.
“I think it’s a huge mistake. We should be demilitarizing our police to be sure. We should not be defunding police departments. We need Andy Griffiths to be giving us models of how to properly police,” Leavitt said.
People’s perception of law enforcement has never been worse, he said. People are angry because 90% of people prosecutors put in jail are struggling to keep jobs, homes and families and trying to overcome addictions.
“The way to fix the problem is to fix us, is to change us. But for us to change, we have to change not only our attitudes toward people but also toward what we’re prosecuting, what we’re doing to people,” he said.
Leavitt created a diversion program in Utah County to get low-level offenders into drug treatment or community service without ever filing criminal charges against them. Those types of solutions, though, can only be done by reallocating budget money.
Calling the system criminal justice is a misnomer and should be renamed to reflect community protection, he said.
“We don’t have the capacity to truly provide justice. We have the capacity to protect and we’re focusing on the wrong thing. We have a system that’s been focusing on justice rather than a system that should be focusing on protection,” Leavitt said.
Reyes said there are situations to which police must absolutely respond, such as violent crimes.
“Let me say categorically that I think dismantling police departments is irresponsible, it’s wrong-minded and it’s myopic,” he said.
But there might be cases where mental health professionals could work in tandem with, but not replace, police.
“Law enforcement is not open to let’s do away with the police and see how clinical workers will respond. They may be great for responding to a situation with an addict, but if that addict has a weapon and is violent, you need trained law enforcement on that side,” Reyes said.
Utah, he said, already has mobile crisis units that in many instances go out with police. Reyes said those types of efforts should be funded but not at the expense of police.
“Don’t take the money away from law enforcement that is already struggling with resources and training,” Reyes said. “What you want to do with law enforcement is increase funding but also increase funding for those social programs, after-school programs, community involvement programs, education programs, sports programs.”
Reyes and Leavitt also see racial disparity in the justice system.
Leavitt said he’s spent the past year in Utah County gathering data to show more than anecdotally that racial bias exists. He said the project isn’t quite done but everything he’s seen so far indicates a serious issue.
“We have a huge problem with racial disparity in the criminal justice system in the state of Utah. There’s no other way to say it,” he said.
Leavitt said there must be a healthy tension between prosecutors and law enforcement, and prosecutors should act as a check on police. He said he ran for office because he knew those problems need to be fixed, and he could better change people’s perspective “if I’m doing it as the leader of the group rather than some guy protesting on the streets.”
Reyes said the racial disparity is both systemic and a reflection of inequities outside the justice system that become absorbed in it. Evidence shows Blacks are overrepresented in prison and jail populations.
Though he said the courts or corrections are not in the attorney general’s purview, “as a voice of influence I absolutely believe that’s incumbent for me and my office” to ensure people’s rights are upheld and treated equally regardless of their skin color, religion and sexual orientation.”
“In the justice system, we have to be truly blind that way,” Reyes said.