Utah County attorney candidate skips ACLU debate, says the organization is too ‘liberal’

It was likely the only opportunity for debate between incumbent David Leavitt and challenger Jeff Gray before the June 28 primary election.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) David Leavitt, left, and Jeff Gray, candidates for Utah County attorney.

Provo • The Utah County attorney decides who to charge with crimes, when to offer a plea deal and what justice policies govern the office, a panel of community members pointed out Tuesday, speaking passionately about the power of the prosecutor.

But missing from the discussion about the importance of the upcoming election were the two people on the primary ballot: incumbent David Leavitt and his Republican challenger, Jeff Gray.

The event, hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and several Utah-based organizations focused on criminal justice, was supposed to be a debate between the two candidates.

But Gray would not participate, saying the ACLU and the other groups participating were “agenda-driven, left wing organizations” that were not neutral enough to host the debate.

“Typically, when you have a debate, it’s done by a neutral party, like the press,” Gray said in a phone interview as he drove south to another Utah County campaign event held Tuesday evening. “Quite frankly, I’ve never seen a debate where parties participate that are not a neutral party. What we have here is sponsored by very left-leaning groups.”

The ACLU event was likely the only opportunity for a debate between the two Republican candidates. There is no Democrat running for the office, so voters will decide the next county attorney in the June 28 primary.

Leavitt was in the audience Tuesday evening, but did not speak publicly besides briefly thanking the co-sponsors for caring about the criminal justice system.

“Gray is scared to debate,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Because it’s one thing to adopt the rhetoric he does, and it’s another thing altogether to actually, thoughtfully discuss the issues.”

The discussion was co-sponsored by the ACLU of Utah, the Disability Law Center, Mormon Women for Ethical Government, Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness and Fresh Start Ventures, an organization that provides training and support to people who were previously incarcerated.

“Decades ago, the ACLU may have been a more neutral organization, but given the positions for which they are currently advocating, and have for many years, I could not in good conscience participate in this debate,” Gray wrote on Facebook. “The event setup and the survey questions sent along with the debate invitation made it clear that the event is more about pushing their agenda and world view than honest, open debate.”

“Honestly,” he added, “if your views align with the ACLU, David Leavitt probably fits your perspective better.”

Leavitt wanted a debate on Tuesday, and said it didn’t matter to him who hosted it.

“I think anyone, from any spectrum from right to left, if they want to talk about political issues and debate, the candidate better show up,” he said. “If the candidate doesn’t show up, the question is why don’t you show up? If you can’t defend your principles to a group of people that disagree with you, you’re looking for the wrong job.”

Niki Venugopal, director of campaigns for the ACLU of Utah, said Tuesday that her organization has a record of holding successful prosecutor debates in Utah, including previous Republican primary debates.

She added that the ACLU has put on these types of events because county attorney races typically don’t receive the same amount of attention or voter engagement compared to other, more high-profile races.

“This is why we worked to provide a platform for candidates in the Republican primary to share their perspectives with people in Utah County and engage on local issues,” she said.

Instead, organizers shifted the Tuesday event from a debate to a panel discussion, with representatives of each of the co-sponsors.

The event, which was sparsely attended in person but had an audience watching online, focused on educating attendees about the importance of the county attorney race and the impact that prosecutors can have on criminal justice issues, such as mass incarceration, the death penalty and plea negotiations. The comments from the panel largely emphasized the desire for criminal justice reform, and not treating mental health or addiction issues as crimes.

Leavitt has focused on reform since he took over as Utah County attorney in 2019. He has cut down the number of felony cases his office has prosecuted and put in place a pre-filing diversion program where people arrested for minor, non-violent crimes can stay out of the criminal justice system and instead are connected to resources

But Gray, who works as an appellate attorney for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, feels those reforms have gone too far and have lost focus on victims and community safety.

Gray has a more conservative view of the role of a top prosecutor, saying he will hold criminals accountable and “charge them based on what the evidence supports.”

Gray has the support of the Utah County Sheriff and Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police, while Leavitt has been heavily criticized by both for his policies.

The challenger supports the death penalty — while Leavitt has promised to never seek the death penalty again as long as he is in office.