‘Massive undertaking’ underway as Utah’s vice presidential debate draws nearer

With Utah’s vice presidential debate just over three weeks away, the event’s organizers say they are involved in a “massive undertaking” to get the state ready to take the national stage.

The most visible marker of the months of behind-the-scenes preparation is the erection of the platform for the media tent — which is expected to host more than 250 reporters from across the country — outside Presidents Circle at the University of Utah.

At the same time, officials continue to work with security professionals, Secret Service members and law enforcement agencies across the Salt Lake Valley and beyond to put together safety protocols for the Oct. 7 event, according to Jason Perry, chairperson of the University of Utah’s Vice President Debate Steering Committee and director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Debate organizers are also coordinating with campaign staff and working to ensure the Kingsbury Hall site is ready to broadcast the 90-minute debate between Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris to 100 million viewers around the country, he said.

“This is a significant event for the state of Utah,” Perry said. And organizers are spending a lot of time “making sure we’re getting it right.”

Utah is the only Western state to hold a debate leading up to November’s election, and October’s event will mark the first time a national debate will be held in the Beehive State.

While the debate will go on as scheduled amid the coronavirus pandemic, it will look different than in years past — featuring a much smaller live audience than originally planned in an effort to allow for social distancing, with no more than 150 to 200 people on site.

Still, Perry said the No. 1 question he gets about the debate is: “How do I get a ticket?”

The university doesn’t control admission, he said, and decisions about how many tickets will be available to distribute will be up to the Commission on Presidential Debates. But President Ruth Watkins has decided that all the tickets will be given to students.

As the debate draws nearer, Perry said the university will allow interested students to put their name into a raffle and seats will be distributed randomly — all part of a commitment to ensure students are involved in the event.

“We want the students to be front and center, from the volunteer aspects of this to the ushers to the people sitting in the seats having tickets,” Perry said.

Ahead of the debate, Utah students of all ages, kindergarten through college, were also invited to submit 300-word essays that answer the question, “If you could ask the vice-presidential candidates one question, what would you ask and why?”

The essays, which were due earlier this month, will be judged by individuals from the Utah Debate Commission and the University of Utah and may be submitted to the debate moderator as a potential question for Pence and Harris.

The event “not only gives students a front row view of this particular event and this critical part of the political process,” Perry said, “but my hope is by being engaged now they stay engaged for the rest of their lives.”

The Utah Debate Commission on Monday announced the moderators for the local debates that will be hosted in the state ahead of November’s election, with an eye toward community members who are not linked publicly with any political party or candidate and are respected as a civic leader in the community.

Details for those events are as follows:

  • The 1st Congressional District debate between Republican Blake Moore and Democrat Darren Parry will be held Sept. 24 from 6-7 p.m. It will be moderated by Rod Arquette, a veteran journalist and former KUTV 2News anchor.

  • The Utah governor’s debate between Lt. Gov Spencer Cox and Democrat Chris Peterson will take place Sept. 29 from 6-7 p.m. It will be moderated by Doug Wright, a semiretired journalist who spent over 40 years in broadcasting and hosted the Doug Wright Show on KSL Newsradio.

  • The 4th Congressional District debate between Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams and Republican nominee Burgess Owens will take place Oct. 12 from 6-7 p.m. It will be moderated by Doug Wilks, editor of the Deseret News.

  • The 3rd Congressional District debate between Republican Rep. John Curtis and Democrat Devin Thorpe will take place on Oct. 15 from 6-7 p.m. It will be moderated by David Magleby, emeritus political science professor at Brigham Young University.

  • The 2nd Congressional District debate between Rep. Chris Stewart and Democrat Kael Weston will take place Oct. 19 from 6-7 p.m. It will be moderated by Pat Jones, a former Utah lawmaker and the co-founder and former president of Dan Jones & Associates.

  • The Utah attorney general debate between Republican Sean Reyes and Democrat Greg Skordas will be held Oct. 21 from 6-7 p.m. It will be moderated by Jennifer Napier-Pearce, the former editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.

The vice presidential debate will be hosted by USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page, a choice announced by the Commission on Presidential Debates earlier this month.

Page recently came under scrutiny for hosting a “Girl’s Night” at her home in November 2018 to honor Seema Verma, the Trump administration’s top Medicaid official. Page paid more than $4,000 to cover catering and other costs of the reception.

A USA Today spokesperson told Politico, which broke the story, that the evening fell “well within the ethical standards that our journalists are expected to uphold.” But others have argued that Page shouldn’t be moderating the debate if she’s also rubbing shoulders with Trump administration officials.

A congressional investigation also found that taxpayers footed a $2,933 bill for organizing the event honoring Verma.