Orem • Utah Rep. John Curtis says his head has barely hit his pillow over the past few months.
The Republican has been seemingly nonstop campaigning since before he took over former Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s seat in last year’s special election. And he stood before voters Tuesday night to ask for their endorsement yet again — this time for what would become his first full term in Congress.
“Tonight, I recommit to you to work as hard going forward as I have the last 11 months to represent everybody in the district,” he said during his closing statements at the Utah Debate Commission’s 3rd Congressional District debate at the Sorensen Student Center Grande Ballroom at Utah Valley University. “... It’s been one of the greatest honors of my life to serve, and I hope you’ll give me an opportunity to go back and finish what I started.”
In making his case for re-election, Curtis looked to the past, with four bills passed through the House of Representatives over the last year, one of which he said the president is expected to sign into law on Wednesday. But he also looked to the future, promising to use his position to advocate for limited government and conservative principles.
A recent Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found Curtis likely has a clear path to re-election, with a solid 54-point lead over his Democratic opponent.
Curtis’ view on the role and scope of government contrasted widely during the debate with that of his opponent, Democrat James Singer, who advocated for establishing stronger social safety nets and populist policies.
“The things that I think make us different is our entire philosophy about what the role of government is,” Singer said after the debate. “For me, the role of government is to make sure that we have the right kinds of public resources to make sure we have individual, prosperous lives.”
If elected, the Navajo, millennial and sociology professor said he would bring “a fresh new perspective” desperately lacking on Capitol Hill. He also said he would work to secure the “the promise for democracy from now into perpetuity” in the face of what he called a rising tendency toward authoritarianism in the White House.
As Utah voters consider a ballot initiative that would legalize medical marijuana in the state, Curtis said he views decriminalization of the drug for medical purposes at the federal level as a state issue.
“The problem is that the federal government has stood in the way of appropriate research, so the state doesn’t have as much information as I would like them to have,” he said. “Voters don’t have as much information as I think it would be good to have.”
To fix that, Curtis said he’s co-sponsoring a bill introduced by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop that would “get the government out of the way” in conducting further study of medical marijuana.
In the meantime, he advocated states take an approach that recognizes valid uses for medical marijuana while also realizing that going too far can “open the door up to societal harms.”
“We want the good part of this without the bad,” he said, citing increased rates of violent crime and traffic deaths in Colorado.
Singer, in contrast, argued that the United States should legalize medical cannabis in an effort to address mass incarceration. He argued that a number of incarcerated people have been wrongly incarcerated due to the government’s stance on marijuana.
Nearly 2.2 million adults were incarcerated in the United States’ prisons and jails at the end of 2016, according to a report published this year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That means that for every 100,000 people residing in the United States, approximately 655 were held behind bars, according to CNN.
“By legalizing medical cannabis, or cannabis even recreationally, we can empty those jails and have people become part of society,” Singer said. “I believe in the responsibility of each individual person that they can use this in their daily lives.”
Curtis said he supported sustainability efforts in the Provo mayor’s office. But at Tuesday’s debate, he fell short of acknowledging that climate change is caused by humans and didn’t answer the question of whether he would support efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels for energy production.
“If we pull out certain words, we bifurcate a room,” he said. “If we insist on defining global warming and what’s causing it, we get into a debate that’s just not resolved. I’ve found great success and great motivation in talking to people about their responsibilities and being good stewards.”He said most Utahns believe in leaving the Earth better than they found it and that those efforts start with personal responsibility.
“Smile if you’re one of those families who drives their car two blocks to church,” Curtis said. “Smile if you’re one of those families that takes two or even three cars to church. Until we begin with the simple things in life that we can be doing, it’s going to be very difficult to change the world.”
But in the face of a report from the United Nations’ scientific panel released earlier this month that describes consequences from climate change occurring much sooner than previously thought — with worsening food shortages and wildfires, a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040 and intensifying droughts and poverty — Singer said it’s important to act now.
“I’m a millennial, and I’m tired of seeing people who are 20 years my senior not taking the climate crisis seriously,” he said. “They keep pushing it back, they keep having these debates of whether it’s real or not. I’m a scientist. It’s real; 97 percent of us who are scientists believe that.”
If elected, Singer said he would advocate for a systemic, business-oriented approach to solving the problem.
“The evidence shows that when we have carbon taxes and when we have things that come through government resource that we’re able to curb some of those C02 emissions,” he said.
Both Curtis and Singer said they oppose policies enacted by President Donald Trump’s administration that led to the separation of families at the southern border.
“Nothing is more out of harmony with Utah’s values,” Curtis said.
Congress needs to act to put more resources at the border, he said, including investing in security, judges and social workers. Border security doesn’t necessarily mean a wall, he said, but that could be part of the solution.
“One of my highest priorities and one of my greatest frustrations is that I haven’t been able to get my colleagues to coalesce around putting anything meaningful forward on immigration,” he said.
“This is where I think it might make more sense strategically to vote for someone like myself, because the party that I’m affiliated with is looking to solve these kinds of problems specifically,” Singer said in response. “... These are the kinds of policies that we’re pushing for. And so far, as John Curtis has been talking about, his colleagues aren’t ready to do that.”
For Singer, the issue is also personal. His wife fled the dictatorship in Venezuela, came to the United States on a visa, and then overstayed it, living “in the shadows” until she received citizenship.
Questions of who gets to be an American also take on a different meaning because of his Navajo heritage, he said.
“I think it’s quite ironic especially as an indigenous person, looking at immigration and debating this,” he said, noting that the first people who came to the United States were colonizers and that immigration has tightened only in recent decades. “We see that there are several factors that go into what our immigration system looks like, and one of them is based on the kind of fear we have of the other.”
Singer said he would support a path to citizenship for undocumented individuals in an effort to incorporate them into society “as quickly as possible.”