Voters in Utah’s reliably red 3rd Congressional District face a choice this November between two opponents who remain split on a number of issues, from public lands to the president and reproductive health rights.
Incumbent Republican Rep. John Curtis, the former Provo mayor, is eager to earn a full term in Congress and says his record, with four bills passed through the House in his 10 months in office, speaks for itself.
“I finally have my feet underneath me with who I was and how I feel about issues, and it took a while to find that part of me,” Curtis told The Salt Lake Tribune of his latest debate.
Democrat James Singer — a millennial and a sociology professor — may also be the first Navajo candidate to run for the U.S. House in Utah and says he would bring a fresh perspective that’s sorely missing on Washington’s Capitol Hill.
But his chance of unseating Curtis seems slim. A poll conducted in August by Lighthouse Research showed Singer with 20 percent of the vote to Curtis’ 51.8 percent.
“I know the odds are against me,” Singer told The Tribune. But he thinks a number of competitive ballot initiatives, a national desire to flip Congress blue and a distaste in Utah for President Donald Trump among both conservatives and liberals may work in his favor and bring people to the polls.
“Those are beyond my control,” he said, “but I’m sure glad they’re there.”
The candidates will debate at Utah Valley University on Oct. 23 at 6 p.m. Until then, here’s where they stand on five hot-button issues, from the president and public lands to reproductive rights.
Trump is a “serial liar,” Singer said, adding that he “lives in a different reality” from most Americans.
Singer said he fully supports special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible improper involvement from the Trump campaign. And while he’s withholding judgment on the president’s guilt until that has concluded, he said it “doesn’t look good” for Trump.
In a state where Utahns have given Trump lackluster support — he won the state by fewer votes than any GOP candidate in modern history — Singer says he’s the candidate who can best represent the state’s interests. He also criticized his opponent for voting with the president the majority of the time.
“I feel like [Curtis] can’t take a strong stance against a president, like President Trump, because the party won’t let him do it,” Singer said. “And I think this is very problematic for people in Utah, where so many people didn’t vote for Trump. We’re an enigma here because of what President Trump stood for or the lack thereof. I don’t see Rep. Curtis being that voice.”
For his own part, Curtis declined to tell The Tribune whether he thinks Trump is an honest man. He deflected the question and asked instead, “Was Bill Clinton an honest man?” Eventually, Curtis conceded that he doesn’t “believe everything that comes out of [Trump’s] mouth” and said he supports Mueller’s investigation moving forward.
In an opinion piece published in The Tribune last fall, Curtis sought to clarify his stance on the Trump administration.
“When Trump is moving an agenda forward that is in harmony with the needs and values of the 3rd District, I’ll be by his side fighting with all my might,” he wrote. “When he’s not, I’ll be the first to call him on it and defend our Utah values.”
When it comes to the question of whether Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, is settled precedent, Curtis said he has “no basis in law to know.”
He’s said he wants to “see us do all that we can to preserve life.” If Rove v. Wade were overturned, he said he would support efforts to ban elective abortion in Utah if that was the will of the Legislature.
“At that point, it becomes a state issue,” he said. “I would support the state in whatever decision they came up with.”
Singer said he considers Roe v. Wade settled. That doesn’t mean he wants to see abortions happening. Instead of limiting access, he said government should focus on addressing systemic issues that would help reduce legal abortions, such as offering education and providing high-quality, affordable health care.
“Teaching preventative measures keeps people from having abortions or the transmission of sexually transmitted infections or diseases,” he said. “That is the role of government — to empower and protect its citizens that way.”
Issues of morality should be left to parents to teach in their homes, he said.
Last December, President Trump swept into Utah for a three-hour visit to erase most of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National monuments — shaving 2 million acres from their boundaries and replacing them with five smaller monuments.
He argued that past administrations had abused the purpose of the Antiquities Act, the law used to create the monuments. The action was swiftly met with lawsuits alleging the reductions are illegal and denouncing them as potentially opening pristine lands to development.
“There’s that issue of whether or not President Trump can use [the Antiquities Act]” to undesignate land, Singer said. “I think that the process by which the native people worked with the federal government and had worked with legislators at the federal level in the past, before it was designated as Bears Ears, was a good process to do it.”
Utah does have a claim to federal lands, Singer said, but not in the way some leaders have talked about it.
“They feel like it’s only theirs,” he said. “And I think that because we’re citizens and we’re part of this area, we should have a say in how that’s structured. But this is part of a larger country. We need to see ourselves larger than just Utah.”
Curtis said federal lands “belong to all of us” but that local leaders have a special claim to managing the land in the public’s best interest. And ultimately, he said he views the Antiquities Act as the “worst possible tool for protecting our public lands.”
“We’re in a climate today where there is so much mistrust and angst, and the Antiquities Act just magnifies all of that,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it was President [Barack] Obama or President Trump.”
Instead of executive action, Curtis said he would like to see public lands designated through legislation, which he argues would require lawmakers to bring stakeholders together in a “more thoughtful” process.
Amid a national conversation about firearms, sparked in part by the deadly February shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 dead, Curtis said Congress owes it “to the American people to improve the situation.”
But for him, that’s not as easy as banning the AR-15, a semiautomatic rifle most frequently used in mass shootings and that Politico recently dubbed “the most political gun in America.” “I don’t think that moves the needle,” he said of such a ban. “I think that’s an emotional thing.”
Before he was elected to Congress, Curtis was a partner and executive at Action Target, a Provo company that helps design and manufacture shooting ranges. He has studied ballistics enough to expertly track the trajectory of bullets.
He’s said he’s co-sponsoring a bill that encourages state legislatures to create gun-violence restraining orders, which would give law enforcement “another tool” to ensure a dangerous person doesn’t have a firearm while also balancing the individual’s due-process rights.
“It’s important for us on the federal level to take action,” he said. “And it’s not enough just to say, ‘Oh, we have the Second Amendment,’ right? I think this is a bill that’s in harmony with the Second Amendment, and I think it’s one that targets something that will actually make a difference.”
Singer said he’s not opposed to people owning firearms for recreation or for hunting.
“It’s part of who we are,” he said. “Many of the people are very responsible with that.”
But he said he is worried about AR-15s and would support stricter restrictions on their ownership.
“Those kinds of weapons were designed to kill humans, and they were designed to kill them as efficiently as possible,” he said. “And anything to maximize that effort puts us at great risk. I mean, we do not give nuclear weapons to normal people or missiles. Likewise, those are weapons of war. They belong with the military and not with ordinary citizens.”
All four of Utah’s Republican House members, including Curtis, backed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act last November, which they said would help families and boost the economy. Democrats derided it as a handout to the wealthy.
Curtis said the tax cut is good for Utah, where there’s a large number of small businesses.
“It’s impacting them in several ways,” he said of the tax cut. “It’s not huge what’s coming to them, but you also have to add in the effect of, for instance, Zions Bank giving all of their employees raises.”
And he believes the tax cut will stimulate the economy enough to make up for the trillions of dollars in lost revenue.
“I don’t think it will be overnight,” he said. “It’s a multiyear process.”
Singer, on the other hand, criticized Curtis’ vote, arguing it was not wise to cut taxes without also cutting spending and that the tax reduction will help the wealthiest with no benefit to those who need it most.
“I believe in a much more progressive tax system, in which those at the bottom are able to pay less taxes because they don’t have the means by which to make ends meet,” Singer said. “And those at the top should be heavily taxed. They are the ones receiving the most benefit from our society, whether directly or indirectly, and have the most at stake.”
He said he would have supported changes to the tax system that focused on redistributing wealth and increasing social safety nets to take care of the most vulnerable in society and provide them access to social mobility.
“Right now, it’s not happening with the current tax system,” he said.