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Utah not the ‘whitest state’ but needs to work harder at inclusion, gubernatorial candidates say

Cox, Peterson discuss diversity, inclusion in candidate forum

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Democrat Chris Peterson and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, pictured in these 2020 file photos, are running for Utah governor.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and University of Utah law professor Chris Peterson, the major party candidates for governor, both told a virtual Salt Lake Chamber audience Thursday that more needs to be done to ensure the state is inclusive as the nation focuses on embracing diversity.

“We are having a moment in our nation and very important conversations are happening,” Cox, a Republican, said in response to a question during his remote segment of the hourlong gubernatorial candidate forum. “I’ve heard it said many times we’re the whitest state in the nation and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

The lieutenant governor, who serves as the chairman of the state’s multicultural commission, said their work has been elevated because of the coronavirus pandemic and the “just tragic murder of George Floyd,” the black Minnesota man who died in May with a police officer’s knee on his neck, sparking worldwide protests.

Although Latinos make up about 14% of Utah’s population, at one point they accounted for some 44% of COVID-19 cases, a trend the state has helped reverse, Cox said, acknowledging “we still have a long way to go.” The commission is working with Black leaders and law enforcement on racial issues.

“An important piece of this is government should be a reflection of its people,” Cox said, adding his wife refers to what she calls “STP — it’s the same 10 people, it’s the same group often that are involved in government and when there are changes, we sometimes shuffle the deck chairs.”

The state has “to be intentional about reaching out and being much more inclusive. That includes gender diversity as well as racial diversity. There are incredible qualified people out there who are often overlooked,” he said, adding that he “will never know what it’s like to be an Hispanic man or a Black man here in Utah.”

But by getting closer and listening to one another, “we can learn from each other. We can start to see the world through someone else’s eyes and that allows us to make improvements. That allows us to change government,” Cox said, pledging a commitment to equal opportunity if elected.

Peterson, a Democrat, joined the moderators at the chamber offices for his segment and said he appreciated the business organization’s focus on diversity and inclusion.

“I do believe that it is one of the great challenges of our time. Across the country and here in Utah, we have a lot of hurt feelings and struggle that’s going on right now,” Peterson said. He then spoke directly to Black, Indigenous and people of color in Utah.

“I see you and I care about you. Your lives matter to me. And if I’m elected governor, I’m going to be in your corner and fighting for you. I want you to know that. At the same time, I also want to mention that I have great respect for our law enforcement,” he said. “Somehow we’ve got to find a path through some of the conflict that we’re seeing.”

His focus, Peterson said, would be to “build together to find compromise and reestablish trust and love for our neighbors.”

State government “can lead in trying to include diverse voices,” he said, committing to “appointing the most diverse executive branch of government in the history of the state of Utah. I know I’m not the best messenger on this necessarily. I’m just another white guy.”

But Peterson said he’s also “proud that I’m trying to lift up and celebrate other voices within my campaign and within the course of my life.”

Both candidates also spoke about how the state can take steps in assisting minority-owned businesses.

Cox said state officials, as well as banking and other business leaders, worked to make sure the second round of federal coronavirus relief funds went to minority-owned small businesses after realizing many were left out initially. He said that effort has helped the state better understand the needs of minority communities.

Peterson, who worked in the Obama administration, said the state can play a larger role in counseling minority-owned businesses about participation in other federal programs, as well as establishing mentoring opportunities to “make sure we’re setting a good example.”

The forum was moderated by Jacey Skinner, the chamber’s executive vice president of public policy and general counsel, and Craig Wagstaff, Dominion Energy senior vice president and general manager of western distribution, who asked each candidate similar questions on a range of topics during their separate segments.

On Friday, Cox and Peterson will share the stage for a debate moderated by Deseret News Editor Doug Wilks, at the first virtual version of the Utah League of Cities and Towns’ annual convention.

Correction: The first name of the Salt Lake Chamber’s executive vice president of public policy and general counsel was misspelled in an earlier version. Her name is Jacey Skinner, not Jaycee.