Utah Eagle Forum tests Utah’s GOP candidates for governor

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spencer Cox, Greg Hughes, and Jeff Burningham look on as Thomas Write answers a question during a panel featuring gubernatorial candidates at the annual Utah Eagle Forum convention in Sandy, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020.

Sandy • All four of the Republican men on stage at the Utah Eagle Forum convention on Saturday were unambiguous in their opposition to abortion, stating clearly that they would sign a bill defining life as beginning at conception, if given the opportunity as the state’s next governor.

Spencer Cox, the state’s lieutenant governor, repeated his belief that future generations will come to view abortion as negatively as today’s Americans view slavery. And Greg Hughes, former Utah House speaker, said it is as important as ever to monitor the national conversation on abortion and push back against liberal efforts to advance “infanticide.”

“I want to live in a county, and I want to live in a culture and community, where we value life and we don’t apologize for it,” Hughes said.

But the candidates’ responses were less direct on subsequent questions, which dealt with state election laws, the widely discredited practice known as “conversion therapy,” and whether parents should be required to vaccinate their children.

The vaccination question was posed in relation to parental rights in education, and all of the candidates responded by praising families without ever mentioning vaccines.

Hughes spent his response time complaining about a 2007 referendum campaign that saw Utah voters decisively reject a private school voucher law. Thomas Wright, former Utah Republican Party chairman, came closest to addressing the vaccine question by talking about how strong families, and not government, can solve problems faced by society.

“I support parental choice,” Wright said. “I have children. I don’t need the government telling me how to raise my children or what to do with them.”

Saturday’s panel was the second time the 2020 GOP candidates for Utah governor have shared a stage, following an economic summit in St. George on Thursday. While all of the declared GOP candidates were present in St. George, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton and former Utah Governor and U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman were absent from Saturday’s event.

The panel was part of a daylong agenda for the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, which included remarks by Utah’s congressional representatives and presentations that questioned the motivations and sincerity of transgender individuals and that criticized the state’s efforts to eliminate youth conversion therapy, an umbrella term for efforts to alter a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The topic of conversion therapy was also presented to the gubernatorial candidates, who were asked whether they support surgeries, hormone therapies and other related services being available to transgender youth, and whether they support the state’s proposed ban on conversion therapy, which was created through an administrative rule after lawmakers failed to achieve consensus on the issue.

Provo businessman Jeff Burningham said parents know best what their children need.

“Any conversion therapy bill should be targeted and very limited in what it does,” he said.

Hughes and Wright said that a law, debated by elected representatives, would be superior to an administrative ban on conversion therapy. But both stopped short of stating whether they support or oppose the ban proposed by the state.

And while Cox — who last year made a point of meeting with a group of youth protesting the governor’s office over conversion therapy — expressed his support for the state’s conversion therapy rule, he also invited the Legislature to review the proposal and alter it, if necessary.

“I agree that legislation is always better,” he said.

The candidates were also asked about their position on SB54, a 2014 law that allows candidates to qualify for a primary election by collecting signatures in addition to or in place of earning the support of party delegates at convention.

The law has increasingly been embraced by candidates — Hughes is the only GOP candidate for governor who has not declared an intent to gather signatures — but remains divisive among the party activists who held considerable nominating power under the traditional caucus system.

Wright, who as Utah Republican Party chairman was involved in discussions that catalyzed SB54, said the law leaves open the possibility of a candidate winning their party’s nomination without majority support.

“If I’m elected governor of this state,” Wright said, "we will repeal and replace SB54 with something that makes way more sense than what we have right now.”

Cox, who oversees the state’s elections, was the defendant in unsuccessful lawsuits brought against SB54 and the state of Utah by the Republican Party. Cox gestured toward Hughes, the former House speaker, while remarking that it is the lieutenant governor who gets sued when “the Legislature does something stupid," and he added that he’d like to see a public vote on something like the Keep My Voice initiative, which unsuccessfully sought to overturn SB54.

“I think we should put that on the ballot and let voters decide,” he said.

Burningham, like Wright, said he would work to repeal SB54 and look for “something better” to replace it, if elected governor. As a venture capitalist, Burningham compared the election law to allowing the public to decide the chief executive officer of a business that his company invests in.

“Private organizations should be able to choose how they choose their leadership,” he said. “That seems like a logical perspective to me.”

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Tribune owner and publisher Paul Huntsman.