In debate, two 1st District Republicans criticize Trump’s vow to use military against protests

The four Republicans in a primary for Utah’s 1st District congressional seat all are conservatives who support President Donald Trump. But in a debate Tuesday, two of them denounced Trump’s vow to use the military to combat protests if states do not control them.

“Not in my America. We don’t need the military of the United States of America in Salt Lake City, Utah,” said Kerry Gibson, a former Weber County commissioner, legislator and state agriculture commissioner. “We don’t need the federal government coming in and telling us exactly how we need to do these types of things.”

“Not in our country. Not in our state,” added Blake Moore, a former foreign service officer who is a principal at the Cicero business consulting group. “Our response to these situations is best done at the local level where we know exactly what's going on.”

But Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt and Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson said they could support the president’s move — in some circumstances.

Witt, like Trump and others, blames protest violence on “antifa,” a contraction for anti-fascist, or a loose gathering of leftist activists. She said the military may be needed to combat its disruption.

“When it comes to antifa, if state governments are not taking care of that problem, I support President Trump in taking a proactive stance,” she said. “I don't see it happening here in Utah, but I believe that they are a terrorist organization and they need to be dealt with as such.”

Stevenson said calling in the military to help in violent protests would be akin to Davis County last weekend sending in officers to help Salt Lake City when its protests turned violent. When police are short-handed, “We have to be willing to step forward to supply that help.”

That was one of few topics where the four disagreed during an event at the PBS Utah studios sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission. The four — who seek to replace retiring nine-term Rep. Rob Bishop — agreed on most topics ranging from balancing budgets to foreign policy and economics.

But Witt differed from the pack on two other issues: whether COVID-19 restrictions have been wise and should be followed, and whether Republicans should try to work across the aisle with Democrats.

Witt has been criticized for supporting a concert proposed in her city to protest and openly defy COVID-19 restrictions — which the other three previously denounced as political grandstanding that endangered residents. The concert by country star Collin Raye was blocked when the City Council rebelled against Witt and threatened to turn on sprinklers and cut power.

“It was a mistake in retrospect to force everybody to close down,” Witt said. “And you can see the impact as we see that the angst and the stress that our nation has gone through over the past several months. It is time to reopen America. We have to let people earn a living.”

Witt brought up that stance several times, even when questions asked about far different topics. “I’ve probably taken a stronger stance than anybody on reopening America. I feel very strongly that we need to trust individuals to make good decisions for themselves and their families.”

But Stevenson questioned if the stand was merely a politically convenient ploy. He said she actually opposed reopening pickleball courts in Davis County when other mayors were seeking to do that.

When candidates were asked how they might work across partisan lines, Witt said she may not.

“When it comes to an issue on principle, I will not be moved,” she said. “I feel that politics is about getting everybody swimming in the same direction in the swimming pool. I’ll work with anybody who wants to preserve freedom, expand opportunity and reignite patriotism things. But sometimes, you’ve got to stand up and not be moved.”

The other candidates vowed to work across the aisle.

Gibson said he did that when he was in the Legislature, and some of the best friends he made there were Democrats. “Sometimes we agreed on the policy, but when we didn’t, we always treat each other with respect and dignity.”

Moore said that in business, he is always working with people who have different opinions to find solutions — and more of that should happen in politics. “We need to embrace that fully.”

Stevenson also said he also did that when he was mayor of Layton with his City Council.We learned how to be a body that complained, that questioned. But when it came to it, we went back together. This is the same attitude that has to happen on either side of the aisle.”

On Monday, Jamie Cheek and Darren Parry, who seek the Democratic nomination in the race, faced the same question about how they would work across the aisle as they seek to become the first Democrats in 40 years to win the heavily Republican district.

Parry, former chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, said he knows how to build bridges and solve differences.

“As a Native American leader, I’ve had to meet with groups that haven’t had our best interests at heart, and I’ve navigated those waters.”

Cheek, a vocational rehabilitation manager for the state, said she listens and works on issues of concern to all such as health care, which builds bridges.

“I’m willing to listen and I’m willing to learn. And I want to know what matters most to them” so she can represent them well.

Parry said it makes the most sense to nominate him as a moderate to likely attract more independents and moderate Republicans in the GOP district.

“We are going to need a lot of the middle-to-Republican votes to win.”

But Cheek, who leans more to the left as a progressive, said Democrats have nominated moderates for the past 10 elections in the district, and none won more than a third of the vote.

She said she can “excite the Democratic base while talking about the things that matter most to all Utahns. ... We do have the issues on our side. We do have the things people care about: health care, education and climate change.”