SALT LAKE CITY — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said in the first general election gubernatorial debate Friday it was “clearly a joke” when he claimed earlier this week that he had “no choice but to agree” with Gov. Gary Herbert’s decision not to issue a statewide mask mandate to deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases.

In a debate held during the Utah League of Cities and Towns’ virtual annual convention, Cox and his Democratic opponent, University of Utah law professor Chris Peterson, addressed the state’s response to the pandemic and other issues raised by moderator Doug Wilks, editor of the Deseret News.

Cox said he backs the governor’s decision on masks.

“The media loves nothing more than to drive the lieutenant governor and a governor apart from each other. That is not helpful. It’s not good during a pandemic. We have one governor in the state and I support the governor. I support the governor in the decisions that he makes,” Cox said, despite any differences they may have.

Utah gubernatorial candidates Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, left, and Democrat Chris Peterson debate during the Utah League of Cities and Towns’ virtual annual convention at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Peterson, however, said the “first obligation of leadership is to take every action you can to keep the public safe” and he repeated the call he first made in July for a statewide mask mandate.

He said the state “has to lead’ during an emergency situation.

“The simple fact is that the best available protection that we have in this crisis is putting on a mask,” Peterson said. “I know that it’s hard to wear them, a lot of people are suspicious of them. We had some failed leadership at the federal level where the president of the United States said that it was a hoax.”

Cox said there are already mask mandates in Salt Lake and Utah counties, put into place by local leaders, but questioned how effective an executive order would be in other parts of Utah. He said he applauds the governor for instead working closely with local officials on the issue.

“We live in very different parts of the state and this virus is having bigger impacts in certain areas right now. This is important. If you implement a mask mandate and you don’t have local support and local buy-in, guess how successful that mask mandate or any mandate is going to be,” he said.

Cox had said during a University of Utah forum on Wednesday he’s “still the lieutenant governor and I have no choice but to agree with the actions of the governor. Look, I think there is wisdom in that,” when asked about Herbert’s response to the current spike in cases largely drive by Utah County college students.

The lieutenant governor has previously said Herbert asked him not to “get in front” of him on that issue, and Cox has repeatedly stopped short of saying what he would have done differently to deal with the novel coronavirus had he been governor.

Herbert told reporters Thursday that Cox is “free to differ from me, but what he is doing is following the science that is coming from our unified command. ... Spencer Cox is following that guidance as he should be that will give us the best outcomes.”

The major party candidates seeking to replace Herbert, who chose not to seek reelection after more than a decade in office, also talked Friday about the state’s tax structure. At the start of the year, lawmakers repealed a new tax reform plan backed by the governor that included an increase in the sales tax on food.

Peterson said the state’s overall tax system is regressive, where low- to moderate-income Utahns “pay a disproportionate” share of their earnings in taxes compared to wealthier residents. “That’s backward. What we need to do is try to return to a more progressive tax structure,” he said.

Utah gubernatorial candidates Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, left, and Democrat Chris Peterson walk on stage for a debate during the Utah League of Cities and Towns’ virtual annual convention at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

But that’s difficult in a state dominated by a single political party, the GOP, the Democratic candidate said.

“So many of the incremental tax decisions are being made based on special interests and party insiders and lobbyists behind the scenes,” Peterson said, resulting in what he described as “shifting more and more tax burden away from those who are well-represented in the state Legislature to those who are not.”

Cox brought up the food tax, calling it a regressive tax that he didn’t support during the tax reform debate, one of the few times he publicly disagreed with the governor. “Increasing the food tax here in the state of Utah, that’s not how we should do taxation,” he said, adding he believes there is a “very solid tax structure right now.”

Peterson said he, too, opposed the food tax increase and questioned Cox’s effectiveness.

“It’s exactly what I talked about. We’re looking for revenue in this state and so the majority party decides, where are we going to get that? Well, one stable source of revenue is everybody has to eat so let’s tax that. I would never have approved that,” he said, adding he is glad Cox also didn’t support it.

“But you also didn’t succeed in preventing that from happening,” Peterson told the lieutenant governor, crediting the citizen-led referendum aided by Harmons and other grocery store chains with forcing state leaders to take back the tax reform plan passed in a special session late last year.

While discussing the strains that growth is putting on the state, Cox several times held up California as an example of what Utah doesn’t want to become.

Rapid growth is coming from a high birthrate and new residents “fleeing places like California, where left leaning politicians are basically destroying their economy and driving people away,” he said. He later warned, “We can’t turn the Wasatch Front into California. We won’t do that if we elect good Republicans.”

Both candidates talked about civility in their closing statements.

“It is actually possible to have dignified discourse between two opponents who disagree on some things and agree on some things. We don’t have to hate each other,” Cox said, adding that the biggest problem facing both the state and the nation is a “toxic” level of political and public discourse.

View Comments

If politics is viewed as “religion, then we think anybody who disagrees with us is evil. That is not true. We must make room for legitimate discourse in our state. We have an opportunity to show the rest of the nation that there is a better way to do things,” he said, pledging to “never use fear and divisiveness” to gain power.

Peterson made another pitch for Utahns to consider electing the first Democratic governor in four decades.

“There is so much that we have to be excited about, about our future. But we also have to recognize that despite our many successes, we do have areas of improvement, where we need to make progress,” the law professor said, citing public school funding, the gender wage gap and high rates of depression and suicide among teens.

He said while he believes in respectful discourse, “we’ve also got to confront the things where we’re not getting the job done,” calling for a “new bipartisanship. Part of what that means is having some bipartisanship, letting others have a seat at the table and leading the state forward to a bright and optimistic future.”

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.