Gubernatorial candidate Greg Hughes and his newly-minted running mate, Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson, share the belief that the state’s sitting governor isn’t doing enough to keep the coronavirus from stifling the economy.

Unlike Hughes, though, Iverson has vented his exasperation in the form of scathing text messages fired off directly to Gov. Gary Herbert’s senior staff. In his conversation opener, Iverson even compared Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox to the notoriously cruel emperor Nero, sitting idly by as the state’s economy goes up in flames.

“You better step up your game boys and get a game plan,” the southern Utah commissioner wrote in a March 18 text, obtained through a public records request. “Tell the Governor and [lieutenant governor] to stop fiddling while Rome burns especially since they started the fire, and real people are going to suffer because of their actions.”

Iverson addressed his biting remarks to two of Herbert’s closest aides, Justin Harding, the governor’s chief of staff, and Mike Mower, deputy chief of staff. In his text response, Harding called Iverson’s message “inappropriate and sensational” and said Herbert had been following the guidance of President Donald Trump in confronting the COVID-19 outbreak.

This image shows a text message exchange between Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson and Justin Harding, Gov. Gary Herbert's Chief of Staff. Iverson is Greg Hughes' running mate in the upcoming election for Utah's governor.

Moreover, Harding explained, Utah’s tourism industry had ground to a halt largely because Trump had restricted travel from China and much of Europe.

“That has nothing to do with the [governor] or [lieutenant governor] — who both remain at the Capitol addressing not only the COVID-19 virus outbreak and pandemic planning, but also an earthquake,” Harding wrote. “Real men lead and do so calmly and with conviction in a time of crisis. That is what I’m seeing from our state leaders. Wish that was the case with some of our [county] commissioners.”

Hughes, who announced Wednesday that Iverson was joining his Republican ticket, said officials often speak more bluntly to each other in private interactions than in public settings and that these frank conversations are a part of working through complex problems.

“I think it’s unfair for him to have to answer to communication with the governor’s staff,” said Hughes, who is himself known for his direct style.

Iverson acknowledged that he was frustrated when he initiated the text exchange and said his language might have been “over-descriptive" but that he did not regret the overall tone of his messages, adding that he remains convinced Herbert has not done enough to protect the economy.

The county commissioner also jokingly conceded that he tends to overuse historical references; in addition to the Nero allusion, his texts also pointed to the example of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who remained in London for the German bombing raids during World War II. By contrast, the commissioner wrote, Herbert “yells fire in a crowded theater."

Harding responded that Herbert has convened an economic response task force focused on preventing job and business losses. The Herbert aide also sent information about how other governments are dealing with the novel virus. The disease, he added, is particularly dangerous to older individuals who make up a significant part of Washington County’s snowbird population, waiting out the winter in warm St. George and other nearby communities.

In a Wednesday interview, the Washington County commissioner said he has taken COVID-19 seriously and has worked with officials and private groups to protect community members, particularly vulnerable groups.

But at the time Iverson sent the texts, Washington County officials hadn’t seen evidence of COVID-19 spreading through the community. And Herbert’s order forcing restaurants across the state to close their dining rooms felt unnecessarily heavy handed to him, he explained in a phone interview, adding that he knows a “lot of restaurants and families that are really having a hard time.”

“I just want you to know that the pain and suffering that you are putting on our state, and on my county will be your legacy,” he wrote to Mower and Harding. “The only pandemic we have is a pandemic of fear.”

While Herbert has not issued a statewide stay-home decree — making Utah one of only eight states without one — he has encouraged people to shelter in place. The governor’s “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive also urges Utah businesses to let employees work from home when possible.

Salt Lake County and several other Wasatch Front jurisdictions have handed down stronger orders, telling an array of businesses to close and putting potential criminal penalties behind directives to stay home except for essential activities.

Like his running mate, Hughes has been critical of Herbert’s leadership through the pandemic, especially in the governor’s approach to the economy. Hughes’ campaign website calls for reopening “responsible businesses” right away, while preserving social distancing precautions and encouraging high-risk individuals to remain in quarantine.

“This pandemic cannot be borne on the backs of the working people of this state," Hughes said in a phone interview.

In the March text thread, Mower shared with Iverson a tweet about Trump’s coronavirus guidelines and information about the Nevada governor’s decision to close down nonessential businesses, an action Herbert has refrained from taking. But Iverson seemed unmoved.

“Your arrogant condescending response is exactly what I expected to receive back from you both,” he wrote, later adding that he was walking into a meeting about preparing Washington County for the pandemic and its economic fallout.

“I guess we will approach this as we approach most things down here with our own self sufficiency and grit,” he continued.

Harding responded that despite Iverson’s “hard feelings” toward Herbert and Cox, the senior aides sincerely wished him well.

“The same to you!” Iverson replied. “I am mad and I disagree with the actions taken but I don’t stay mad and I am always willing to do what must be done to solve the problem.”