The two Democratic candidates hoping to earn a state Senate seat in one of Utah’s most liberal districts squared off Wednesday to each make their case for how they would best represent the people of Salt Lake City.
In a primary election debate at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Senate District 2 Democratic candidates Derek Kitchen and Jennifer Plumb covered a variety of issues, including homelessness, Medicaid expansion, education, ballot initiatives and taxes.
The discussion between the Democratic candidates came after incumbent Sen. Jim Dabakis, one of the most outspoken and vocal liberal voices in Utah politics, announced in late February he would not seek re-election in November.
While there was agreement between the two candidates at most points of the debate, a moment of contention arose on the subject of Operation Rio Grande and how to best address homelessness. Kitchen, a Salt Lake City Council member, praised the multi-agency effort to crack down on crime and drug use in homeless communities in the Rio Grande area, although he conceded it was too militant an effort.
“Something had to be done,” Kitchen said, adding that the operation was successful in mitigating the organized criminal activity of Honduran gang members.
“It’s a little bit racist to say that this is all Honduran, in terms of where the drugs are coming from,” responded Plumb, a pediatrician and public health advocate who lost her brother to a heroin overdose. Plumb agreed that something needed to be done to address crime and illegal drug use in the area but that a better way to address homelessness would be through increasing health care resources and social services for people struggling with addiction.
“There were good pieces,” Plumb said of Operation Rio Grande, but “it was not that simple” as arresting and displacing people.
Both candidates agreed that Utah lawmakers need to be proactive when it comes to education and investing in future generations. Kitchen said funding prekindergarten programs is essential for a state with such a young population.
Plumb added that it is “much more nuanced” than giving dollars to teachers and increasing the student-counselor ratio and that public schools should start implementing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that personalize the education experience. “Why is my 14-year-old son being taught to succeed on a test?” Plumb asked, criticizing the nature of standardized testing.
When asked about ballot initiatives, including one to legalize medical marijuana and another aimed at protecting the signature-gathering process for candidates, both Democrats described citizen-driven initiatives as good for democracy.
On the question of finding ways to increase tax revenue, Kitchen floated the idea of taking “a page out of some of our neighbors’” books and looking into tax revenue through the lottery, like Idaho, or through legal marijuana, like Colorado. “It’s time for us to look at some of these creative options,” Kitchen said.
Kitchen and Plumb said they would support a measure to increase the Beehive State’s minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour. Kitchen said he would back a $15 minimum wage while Plumb said a $12 minimum wage is “not enough.”
Senate District 2 includes downtown Salt Lake City and Capitol Hill, as well as the Avenues, 9th and 9th, Liberty Wells, and parts of Sugar House and Glendale.
Unlike most Utah races, whoever wins the June 26 Democratic primary will have a strong chance at beating the Republican opponent in the general election. In 2014, Democrat Dabakis received 74.2 percent of votes while his Republican competitor, Jacquie Nielson, managed just 25.8 percent.
In her closing remarks, Plumb described herself as someone who people on Capitol Hill see “as a pediatrician” and a “lifesaver” as opposed to simply a Democrat or Republican. She added that she is optimistic that “we are going to get some women” in the predominantly male state Legislature.
Representing a progressive district is a “critically important” job, Kitchen said, describing it an opportunity to be a rare left-wing voice on issues like public lands, LGBTQ rights and women’s rights. Kitchen, who is gay, pointed out that, if elected, he would be the only openly gay person in the Legislature, as Dabakis is now.
The debate was hosted by the ABU Education Fund and John R. Park Debate Society at the University of Utah.
Correction: The ACLU was not a sponsor of this debate.