Utah’s Republican hopefuls for governor gang up on Spencer Cox and the Herbert administration

Three of the four Republican candidates for Utah governor criticized the state’s response to the coronavirus as overbroad on Monday and accused Gov. Gary Herbert of “politicizing” the public health crisis by appointing his chosen successor to head up the response.

The jabs thrown during an hourlong debate put Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who leads the state’s coronavirus task force and who a recent poll indicated is the current front-runner, on the defensive for much of the night as the race heats up ahead of the June 30 primary.

“Certainly in hindsight there are some things that we could have done differently,” Cox acknowledged during the Utah Debate Commission forum, which was hosted without a live audience at the University of Utah to avoid spreading the illness. “But by and large we have had a tremendous response to this coronavirus crisis.”

Utah was one of only seven states that didn’t have a statewide shutdown to stem the spread of the virus, he noted. And he cited a recent study that showed that 45 states had placed more restrictions on the economy and people’s liberties than Utah had, as well as the state’s low hospitalization and mortality rates from the virus as evidence for his cause.

[Election 2020: Where Utah’s gubernatorial candidates stand on a variety of issues]

Former House Speaker Greg Hughes, who referred to himself throughout the night as the only “true” conservative in the race, views the state’s response differently and criticized a loss of civil liberties caused by government mandates.

“A government that tells you what businesses are essential or not, a phone that if it crosses state lines goes off like an Amber Alert asking who you are, where you’re going and what your health status is, communist-style snitch hotlines that have been asked of citizens to engage in, this is borne by fear,” Hughes said. “We never make good decisions out of fear.”

Hughes was referencing a state experiment to target text alerts at travelers crossing the state line into Utah — an effort that ended just three days after it started. Travelers were being asked as part of the voluntary survey to answer whether they had experienced symptoms of COVID-19 and where they had been before coming to Utah.

Cox’s opponents also took shots throughout the night at the state’s spending of more than $84 million in no-bid contracts and supply orders made outside the normal purchasing rules during the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak.

While the lieutenant governor argued those shortcuts were necessary to cope with the urgent need for protective gear and intense international competition over medical equipment, his fellow gubernatorial hopefuls questioned some of the purchases.

“I think we made a huge mistake by politicizing this whole episode,” said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. “The Hong Kong flu of 1969 [was] never politicized. The experts ran it.”

Were he in charge, Huntsman said he would not have appointed a lieutenant governor who’s running for governor to head the state’s coronavirus response. Instead, he would have left it to health experts like state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, “who’s perfectly qualified as an expert to handle the situation.”

“Instead it was politicized. So what does that do? It leads to $100 million no-transparency deals that still have not been properly explained,” he said.

If elected as governor, Hughes said similarly that he would fight for more transparency, noting that there are “a lot of questions” about how purchases were made.

He pointed particularly to a state contract for up to $6.35 million with mobile developer Twenty for the launch of Healthy Together, an app that tracks residents’ movements and aims to help public health workers trace where infected people crossed paths with other users. That price tag, he said, seems high in the face of reports that other tech companies had offered to create a similar product for free.

“We’re not getting clear answers” about how that contract happened and why “and I think what we learn from this and we don’t do again is we make sure that’s a transparent process,” he said.

Among the most controversial state purchases so far was an $800,000 order for hydroxychloroquine from a Utah pharmacist who had amassed the anti-malaria drug and was working behind the scenes with officials to distribute it statewide for coronavirus patients. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert later canceled the order.

Cox, in response to Huntsman, decried the politicization of the virus but disagreed with its source, arguing that “the only people playing politics with this disease are the people on this stage.”

“In the moment, it’s incredibly difficult and those decisions were being made and influenced at every level by the experts here in the state of Utah,” he continued.

Huntsman said the characterization his opponents were the ones who had politicized the coronavirus was “absurd.”

“I want to remind people where we’ve been for three months,” he said. “We’ve been locked up in our homes, where the only people able to campaign and politicize have been those in the Governor’s Office, using the platform, using it as a bully pulpit. This is absolutely absurd while we sit under house arrest and try to do our best to run a campaign. That’s how this campaign has proceeded.”

In addressing what lessons they’ve learned from the pandemic, Hughes said he would fight as governor for reform on health department orders and state of emergency declarations “so we don’t see our constitutional liberties and some of the behaviors we’ve seen in this pandemic ever happen again.”

Former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, who sought to position himself as the outsider in the race, also expressed a need for more checks and balances and offered support for “guardrails” created by the Legislature. He wants to ensure executive orders “are not the governing rule of the day” and that locally-elected representatives are involved in decision-making.

Wright said he thinks the role of government during the pandemic should have been to disseminate information about the coronavirus to help people understand the seriousness of COVID-19 “and allow people to make choices based on their freedoms and liberties” and that he wouldn’t support lockdown orders as governor.

“What we need to do in the state of Utah is respect our personal liberties, our personal constitutional rights and do the right thing not because we’re compelled by government to do it but because we know what the right thing is to do and we’ll do it because we have personal responsibility and we believe in doing the right thing,” he said.

Civil unrest

During the debate, candidates also had the chance to respond to a separate crisis that’s captivated the state’s attention in recent days: the violent protest that emerged in Salt Lake City over the weekend in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The candidates each expressed support for peaceful protest but decried the violence that characterized the demonstration, during which protesters set two cars on fire and threw rocks at the windows of businesses and cars while police responded with rubber bullets and arrests.

“The rioters, those that look to prey upon the weak, those that try to create fear, civil unrest, break the law, that isn’t what this is about,” Hughes said. “That’s not the protest or the feelings that we all as a nation felt and that is what has to be dealt with head on.”

Cox, who decried Floyd’s “murder” and said there is “no place for police brutality in America, said the protests reflect “real frustration, especially in our black community — those who for generations have felt this type of discrimination.”

At the same time, the lieutenant governor recognized frustration within police departments that feel they’re not getting the support from elected officials “that they deserve.”

“We also lost one of Utah’s finest in Ogden this past week and we must remember how difficult these jobs are for the men and women in law enforcement,” he said. “They deserve our support and they are working around the clock to stop these rioters and these looters and to protect the property and lines of Utahns. Even those that are protesting.”

Huntsman, in answering a question about how he would respond to President Donald Trump’s call for governors to take an aggressive stand against the demonstrations, also expressed support for police officers.

“I’d have a conversation with the president like I have on many occasions,” he said. “We shoot straight with each other, I’ve got a good relationship with him. But I would ask first and foremost are we doing enough to thank law enforcement for putting their lives on the line? Are we doing enough to thank them and their families for the restraint that was shown in the face of anarchy?”

Wright, in addressing the protests, said they reflect a frustration among many about the lack of leadership on issues like racial inequality.

If elected, he said he would direct the state’s Commissioner of Public Safety to ensure all new and future officers are trained adequately “so that they’re listening and learning and we’re being compassionate with each other and we can take action on racial inequality.”

“We can even discuss a course for current police officers; I know they want to be a part of the solution and they should have an equal opportunity” to engage in that curriculum through the Peace Officer Standard and Training (POST) council.

Editor’s note: Gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, the chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.