The four GOP gubernatorial candidates who have cemented their place in the party’s primary election met in a virtual forum Wednesday, delving into their plans for dealing with growing pains in urban Utah while spreading prosperity to rural residents.
The field of Republican competitors narrowed last weekend when party delegates knocked three candidates out of the running. On Wednesday, nonprofit Envision Utah hosted the remaining hopefuls — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Greg Hughes and former state Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright — in an online forum.
The forum also included University of Utah law professor Chris Peterson, the lone Democrat remaining in the gubernatorial race.
During the roughly 90-minute event moderated by Doug Wright, the candidates touched on a range of topics, many of them relating to planning for the state’s expected population boom.
Huntsman predicted that an influx of growth in coming decades will both invigorate the state’s economy and challenge its resources, and he said Utah’s next governor must make sure all residents share in future opportunities. He said he’s heard complaints on the campaign trail from rural residents who feel like state leaders make them big promises but fail to deliver.
“People give it lip service. People talk, talk, talk,” Huntsman said. “And we have had nothing in terms of an uplift in real opportunities.”
As governor, Huntsman said he would invest in agriculture as an economic driver and support improving broadband service and bringing health care and job training to less populous areas.
Cox, who grew up on a Fairview farm that’s been in his family for six generations, said his father always told him rural Utah’s “best crop” was its children.
“Unfortunately, it’s also our best export,” he said.
But by expanding internet access and encouraging teleworking, the state can tamp down this trend, Cox said.
“Broadband is the great equalizer,” he said. “It gives everyone in rural Utah the same opportunities to compete in a world marketplace as those on the Wasatch Front.”
Directing growth away from the state’s population centers could also support clean-air efforts and help relieve traffic congestion and other growth-related challenges in and around Salt Lake City, Hughes argued.
He said communities in urban areas are pushing back against high-density development in their neighborhoods, even as the need for affordable housing in those communities intensifies. One answer to this quandary, he said, is to direct more of the growth away from cities by making it more practical for people to live and work in rural Utah.
“I think that what the Wasatch Front needs aligns perfectly with what rural Utah needs,” he said.
Peterson said state leaders need to plan new communities strategically, wherever development is located. “Let’s make sure we have walkable areas with low pollution and affordable housing and then tie those together with infrastructure programs that bring our communities together,” he said.
Wright said the coronavirus pandemic has illuminated some of the longstanding inequities between rural and urban Utah — in terms of economic vitality, internet access and affordable housing.
“There are many counties that never came out of the last recession,” he said. “They’re not experiencing economic growth. It’s devastating to them.”
Several of the other candidates spoke about their plans for dealing with the fallout from COVID-19, including Cox, who released a document minutes before the forum detailing his proposal for helping the state recover.
Cox’s seven-point plan calls for protecting Utah’s supply of minerals, personal protective equipment and medical supplies; strengthening online education; fortifying agriculture; upgrading telehealth systems; expanding remote working across the state; conducting a top-to-bottom review of government to look for restructuring and streamlining opportunities; and refilling the state’s rainy day fund.
“While there are many lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 global health pandemic, the crisis has confirmed the importance of one of Utah’s founding ideals — the principle of self-sufficiency,” the plan states. “If anything, the past few months have shown us that the Boy Scout motto to ‘Be Prepared’ is always apt.”
A fifth Republican candidate, Jan Garbett, was not part of Wednesday’s candidate forum. Garbett has not yet claimed a spot in the primary, either through the party convention process or by gathering enough signatures to qualify.
However, she has a second shot to earn a place on the Republican primary ballot, after a judge Monday ordered a lowering in the threshold for the number of signatures she’d need in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The primary election will take place on June 30.
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.