Campaign rivals cry foul after state agency invites Mitt Romney to speak at its tech summit

U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney delivers his speech to the delegates at the Utah Republican Nominating Convention Saturday, April 21, 2018, at the Maverik Center in West Valley City. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Opponents of Senate candidate Mitt Romney are upset that a state agency — Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) — invited the former GOP presidential nominee to be the keynote speaker at its upcoming heavily advertised public technology summit.

And at that same luncheon where Romney speaks, USTAR and Gov. Gary Herbert are giving LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson the state’s top civilian scientific award for lifetime achievement in medicine for his years as a heart doctor — perhaps guaranteeing a big turnout at the summit that costs $79 per person.

“USTAR is a state agency and this is blatantly unfair,” said Jenny Wilson, Democratic nominee in the Senate race. The campaign for Mike Kennedy, who faces Romney in the June 26 Republican primary, said he was also concerned and was working on a statement — but it was not immediately provided.

USTAR disagrees with the criticism and is keeping Romney as its star speaker. However, amid complaints, it said Monday it is now working “with a neutral third party” to add a session at the summit for all Utah congressional candidates to participate in a moderated roundtable discussion about technology innovation.

Brian Somers, managing director of USTAR, said all federal candidates will be invited in part because Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams — who is running for Congress against GOP Rep. Mia Love — is also involved in another panel.

Because both Romney and McAdams are participating, he said it made sense to open the roundtable to all congressional candidates.

Wilson said she called USTAR officials to either give all Senate candidates equal time or to choose another keynote speaker. “The key point is having a fair playing field,” she said.

Salt Lake County Council member Jenny Wilson, Democratic candidate for Utah's open Senate seat, is shown at the House District 24 Democratic Caucus at Ensign Elementary in Salt Lake City on March 21, 2018. (Chris Detrick/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Wilson said she had never seen a state agency invite a candidate to a high-profile event without also inviting opponents.

She noted the Utah Technology Innovation Summit occurs about the same time that by-mail ballots will start arriving in Romney’s GOP primary against Kennedy, and five months before the Nov. 6 general election.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Senate candidate Mike Kennedy delivers his speech to the delegates at the Utah Republican Nominating Convention Saturday, April 21, 2018 at the Maverik Center. Kennedy and Mitt Romney will head to the primary.

“I saw that and was immediately shocked by it. I’m still confused as to how it happened,” she said. “What we typically see, and what is appropriate, is that everyone gets equal time … and that we all have an opportunity to weigh in, or they choose not to invite candidates.”

USTAR issued a written statement pushing back.

“USTAR disagrees with the assertion that a candidate participating in a narrowly focused technology conference automatically amorphizes the conference into a political event. Content and context matter,” it said.

The statement added that Romney was chosen because “his record in promoting technology-based economic development activities as a private investor, policy maker and as a thought leader is indisputable.”

It said that included his work as Massachusetts governor and in his work at Bain Capital and Bain & Company, where he invested in dozens of science and technology companies.

“He was not invited to participate because he is a political candidate,” the statement said.

When asked for comment about the situation, MJ Henshaw, spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, said simply, “The tech community is a huge part of Utah’s economy. We are happy to support and promote Utahns working in this industry.”

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