Washington • Four Utah Republicans hoping to take on — and topple — Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams sparred Monday over the leadership of President Donald Trump, the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, rioting in major U.S. cities and even the wearing of masks in public.
The GOP contenders looking to win the GOP nomination in the June 30 primary also complained about “out of state” protesters wreaking havoc in Salt Lake City over the weekend — a false claim as arrest records show most were Utah residents.
It took 54 minutes for McAdams' name to be uttered in the 4th Congressional District debate, and even then nonprofit executive Trent Christensen called the incumbent “Ben Pelosi,” a perhaps intentional or unintentional mixture of McAdams first name with the last name of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Christensen and former radio host Jay McFarland boasted of their ability to work across the aisle while state Rep. Kim Coleman touted her conservative record in the Utah Legislature, and former NFL player Burgess Owens derided Democrats for ruining the country.
“We're dealing with people who hate our country,” Owens said. “I will not negotiate a compromise with anyone who hates my country, because they have a totally different endgame.”
Earlier in the debate — held at the University of Utah's PBS studio without an audience and the candidates physically distanced — Owens said Republicans need to take back the U.S. House to halt Democrats' liberal agenda.
“The reason why we’re being held hostage is because the Democrats are run by Marxists and socialists and they could care less about the middle class,” Owens said. “They care less about we the people [and] the small business owners. As a matter of fact, the more misery that we experience, the more power they get.”
McFarland charged back that it was language like that keeps Republicans and Democrats from working together to find solutions.
“I think we have to change who we're sending” to Congress, McFarland said. “We're choosing extremes who can't even look at the other side, can't even talk to the other side. How can we expect them to come together with any solutions — by calling them Marxist, calling them all kinds of evil names in the book — and then you want to go to Washington and say, 'Hey, sit down with me and let's come up with a solution together.' It's not reasonable. We need to choose people who can talk to each other.”
Coleman said she has a record as a conservative in the Legislature but also worked with Democrats on finding solutions.
“The problem is that sometimes compromise is asking that one side give everything,” Coleman said. “And that's what we're not seeing in Congress right now.”
The state lawmaker praised Trump and Congress for quick action on relief legislation during the coronavirus outbreak and to let states respond as they needed to own without orders from Washington. But she warned against more legislation that she says isn’t bipartisan.
“If Republicans in the Senate have to continue to negotiate with the Democrats in the House, we’re going to get these kinds of pork barrel types of proposals,” she said, likely a reference to a House-passed $3 trillion relief bill. “And in addition to what’s been mentioned, Nancy Pelosi is suggesting that red states that have healthy economies would bail out blue states that have not been as responsible as Utah.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has been one of the voices in the GOP-run Senate arguing that Congress should have a discussion about providing money to states to deal with budget woes caused by the pandemic and has noted that some Republican-led states are suffering more than Democratic-led states.
The GOP candidates, for the most part, carefully lauded Trump, who may be popular among hardcore Republicans but is not a beloved figure in the 4th Congressional District where polls show more people disfavor him than support him.
Owens, though, painted himself as a Trump supporter, saying America needs a Congress that will let the president do what he needs to do.
“He's the right man at the right time,” Owens said.
McFarland, too, praised the president's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m trying to think of a time when a president has had to balance lives with livelihoods,” McFarland said. “And you think about that balance that he is trying to find, maybe three times in the history of our country has a president had to make that choice. And I think he’s done as best a job as anybody could without a playbook.”
The Trump White House was left with a 69-page guide by President Barack Obama’s administration in dealing with outbreaks. It was labeled, “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents.”
In discussing the protests in major U.S. cities, including one in Salt Lake City where a police car and another vehicle were overturned and burnt, the candidates decried out-of-state antagonists as the driving force.
Christensen, when asked about Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s response to the protests, praised her leadership and the Salt Lake Police Department’s swift actions.
“We had a response that was able to bring the temperature down and get those people who were from out of state who were inciting violence, get them out,” Christensen said. “Listen, the people inciting violence, they're the enemies, not the protesters, not the police.”
Owens, too, blamed outside people.
“This is not who we are,” he said. “For this to happen in Utah, means that somebody's coming in to get it done.”
Of the 46 people police said were arrested and booked for crimes during the protests in the capital city, The Salt Lake Tribune could find only two listing out-of-state addresses among the 40 it could identify through public records. Thirty-five had Utah residences. The newspaper was unable to find addresses for three others.
Three of the candidates said they were not wearing masks in public despite advice from health officials to do so to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
“I don’t,” Christensen said. “If a business asks me to do so in order to patronize the business, I will. But I believe it’s a choice. ... I don’t have a problem with masks. What I do have a problem with is being told I have to wear a mask. That’s not how we do things in America. What you’re going to see is a vaccine come out for this and what I don’t want to have happen is them saying, ‘Well, you had to wear a mask, now you need to have a vaccine.’ So in America, we get to choose.”
Coleman said she “generally” doesn't wear a mask but tries to “respect the distance” of other people in public.
Owens said he doesn't and noted that originally, health care officials said masks wouldn't help.
“I get to choose not to,” he said. “I think it comes down to small businesses. ... If people want to be in a place where masks are dictated, then go for it. But in terms of myself, I don't.”
McFarland, who noted he has a daughter with “extreme asthma,” said he wears a mask in public because it shows respect for other people's health.
“It may help her,” he said. “Nobody has a gun to your head [forcing you to wear a mask]. Part of exercising personal liberty is to do so responsibly. What happened to love thy neighbor? What happened to civil respect for other people? I wear a mask when I'm in public for that reason. “
The GOP candidates all said they opposed the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and would vote to repeal it.
“What challenges we do have in health care are better resolved through free market principles,” Coleman said. “And the ACA took us into an entirely different direction. Now there are pieces of the ACA that people like and would like to see remain in a repeal and replace [bill].”
Owens said the “systemic problem” with health care is “more and more government regulations, more and more government dictation” that doesn't look for the solutions that help people.
Christensen said there was no question that “Obamacare needs to be fully rooted out 100%.”