Utah is frequently associated with the Osmonds, the Utah Jazz, actor Robert Redford, musician Post Malone, and, more recently, Sen. Mitt Romney.
But on Wednesday evening, during the vice presidential debate at the University of Utah, the Beehive State’s two most temporarily famous residents arguably became the fly that perched itself atop Vice President Mike Pence’s head and Brecklynn Brown, an eighth grader from Springville Junior High whose essay became the last question of the night.
Brown’s question, truncated by moderator Susan Page, touched upon the nation’s toxic political atmosphere, the polarized nature of its citizenry, and the seeming unwillingness of many of its elected officials to work across the aisle.
“When I watch the news, all I see is arguing between Democrats and Republicans. When I watch the news, all I see is citizen fighting against citizen. When I watch the news, all I see are two candidates from opposing parties trying to tear each other down. If our leaders can’t get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?” Brown wrote, before going on to ask the respective candidates what a presidency from their respective tickets could do to “unite and heal our country.”
Pence responded first, noting that “In America, we believe in a free and open exchange of debate, and we celebrate that. It’s how we’ve created the freest and most prosperous country in the world.”
He also cautioned her not to assume “that what you’re seeing on your local news networks is synonymous with the American people.”
Pence then cited the example of late Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, pointing out that while they were “polar opposites” ideologically, "the two of them, and their families, were the very closest of friends.
“When the debate is over, we come together as Americans,” he added.
Sen. Kamala Harris, the running mate for former Vice President Joe Biden, praised Brown for touching upon “who we are and who we should he.”
She then sought to juxtapose the frequently-hardline rhetoric employed by President Donald Trump against the behavior of Biden, whom she noted “has a long-standing reputation of working across the aisle, and working in a bipartisan way.”
Harris added that would continue with a Biden presidency.
“Joe Biden has a history of lifting people up and fighting for their dignity,” she added.
Brown’s question turned her into an instant nationwide sensation.
Lana Hiskey, Nebo School District’s spokesperson, said in an email Thursday that Brown had been inundated with requests: “We have been working with news media late into the night and early this morning, with local and national news.”
She said that while Brown has not done any interviews, owing to “her young age and some negativity on social media,” Hiskey did issue a statement on the student’s behalf.
“It was both shocking and amazing to be able to ask a question to Vice President Pence and Senator Harris! It felt good to be heard, and I appreciate their responses,” Brown’s statement reads. “I’m so glad a question that meant so much to me also meant so much to other Americans. As we were talking in my history class about the many issues happening in our country, I realized the importance of listening and respecting each other. I hope we can all try a little harder to understand one another and that we can all do our part to unite our country.”
The Utah Debate Commission partnered with the State Board of Education to create an essay contest designed around answering the question: “If you could ask the vice presidential candidates one question, what would you ask and why?” They received more than 700 submissions of 300-word essays, coming from kindergarten students to college undergraduates.
The essays were judged by the commission, volunteers from the University of Utah, and teachers. Winning essays representing four different age groups were submitted to Page for her consideration, but they had no idea that Brown’s question would make it onto the national broadcast.
“I was in a debate watch party next to Kingsbury Hall, and the hall erupted in applause,” said Nena Slighting, executive director of the Utah Debate Commission. “It was just really exciting to have a Utah question in our vice presidential debate that’s viewed at the national level. And such an authentic question coming from one of our students was an amazing moment.”
Slighting said that Brown’s essay emerged as the top choice from her age group because it “represented very well the angst that a lot of Americans are feeling. I think most of us want to have unity, and we have more in common than we have differences, and her essay reflected that.”
She also believes that the question elicited some of the best responses of the night from a pair of politicians who otherwise appeared reluctant to directly answer questions posed to them.
“I think it was heartfelt for both of them. And we as the viewing audience, wanting to find some healing, could relate to both candidates and their responses,” Slighting said. “For me, it was the pinnacle moment of the debate.”