Chris Peterson, the Democratic candidate for Utah governor, says it would be a mistake to view him as a “wild-eyed liberal.”

Sure, the University of Utah law professor believes people who are well-off should contribute more to society than those who are less able. But that’s a lesson he learned from the Bible, which teaches that “to whom more is given, a little bit more needs to be expected,” Peterson said Thursday during a gubernatorial forum with his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

“I’m not Nancy Pelosi,” he said during the lunchtime event hosted by the Utah Foundation. “I’m just a normal Utah kid that’s trying to make a difference in this world.”

Even Peterson acknowledged that some view him as a long-shot candidate in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since Scott Matheson was reelected in 1980. But in one of his first opportunities to contrast himself with the Republican favorite, Peterson indicated his strategy will be to run as a moderate, Jim Matheson-style Democrat who would be well-suited to lead a conservative state.

Thursday’s discussion marked the first time Cox and Peterson have appeared at a forum together since the candidates won their party nominations — Cox in the June primary and Peterson in the April convention of his party. The Democrat wanted to face off against Cox in a debate in late July or early August, but the lieutenant governor’s campaign declined to participate, saying it was too early in the general election cycle for the event.

A poll released Wednesday by the Utah Debate Commission showed Cox leading Peterson 55% to 19.6%. Some 15% of voters said they’re still undecided. The poll had a margin of error 4.38%.

The two candidates didn’t address one other directly Thursday and took turns answering questions posed by the moderator, KSL’s Deanie Wimmer. But the two spoke cordially about each other, even voicing agreement on a few points.

That’s how campaigning is supposed to be, Cox said. When his running mate, state Sen. Deidre Henderson, contracted COVID-19 last month, Peterson’s running mate Karina Brown sent her flowers.

We should be able to have civil discourse,” Cox said. “We can disagree, and we will. But this is really important that we are able to have these conversations.”

COVID-19

Cox opened his remarks Thursday by asking attendees in the Grand America Hotel ballroom to put their masks back on after they finished their lunches, reminding them that Utah set a new pandemic record Thursday by reporting 911 new coronavirus cases.

“I hate to be that guy,” said Cox, who has been a leader in the state’s coronavirus response. “This is the perfect event for spread to happen, and it’s incumbent on all of us to take those steps that are important to mitigate the spread of the virus.”

His request was in keeping with the Republican nominee’s approach to masks throughout the race — he’s urged Utahns to cover their faces, but he supports Gov. Gary Herbert’s decision not to mandate them.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gubernatorial candidate Spencer Cox speaks at the Utah Foundation Anniversary Luncheon, moderated by Nadine Wimmer, at the Grand America Hotel on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020.
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That’s not how Peterson says he would approach things if he were in charge, telling the audience he’s already expressed support for an order on face coverings.

“I’m fully aware of how that’s going to get received in some corners of the state,” he said. “The reason that I did that is because all of the scientific advisers that I talked to recommended it."

If elected, Peterson also said he’d push to “radically decrease” testing turnaround times and triple or quadruple the number of in-person contact tracers in the state. Like Cox, he’s hopeful that a vaccine will be available next year to control the disease, but he also expressed concern about rolling it out before it’s safe.

“The last thing we should be doing is sticking an untested vaccine into a bunch of healthy people,” he said.

Peterson and Cox both said curbing the spread of COVID-19 and grappling with the long-term consequences of the disease would be their top priorities if elected governor in November.

The lieutenant governor also said he wouldn’t make the mistake of forgetting about public health agencies after the coronavirus crisis subsides. These health agencies are often overlooked and underfunded until something like a global pandemic hits, he said, but state and federal officials should watch out for this type of complacency going forward.

“We need to make sure that we take care of them in the good times, not just the bad times," he said.

Education and jobs

Utah has long ranked at the bottom of the nation when it comes to per-pupil funding for schools, and Peterson argued that this lack of investment shows up in student performance.

“Utah was supposed to be ‘life elevated,’ not ‘life kind of mediocre,’ ” he said. “We should be expecting more of our kids and ourselves. We should be leading the country.”

As governor, Peterson said, he’d focus on recruiting and retaining top-notch teachers and making sure that community schools have the resources they need. State leaders should also boost mental health services in schools to address the high levels of teen suicide in Utah, he said.

“We need the resources in our public schools to take care of those little kids,” he said. “We need to be making sure that there are the counselors and the mentors in place to try and identify them and get them the help they need. We owe that to all those children.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson speaks at the Utah Foundation Anniversary Luncheon at the Grand America Hotel on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020.
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Cox said he’d aim to promote equity in education. While Utah primarily funds education with a per-pupil amount that’s the same across the state, Cox noted that local investments in schools vary widely from place to place.

Students on the west side of Salt Lake City receive much less funding than their peers on the city’s east side, he said. Children in some parts of rural Utah are also at a disadvantage because of these school funding disparities, Cox continued.

“The Utah Constitution guarantees everyone a quality education,” he said. “And you can’t tell me that we’re getting a similar education in those schools when we’re spending twice as much in one school than in another.”

Cox added that he’d also work to increase teacher salaries and addressing a statewide shortage of educators.

The candidates also talked about educating Utahns in a way that aligns with the economy of the future. Cox argued that for too long, education and career have occupied separate silos. Instead, state leaders need to see them as intertwined, he said.

“The other mistake that we’ve made is this idea that every kid needs a bachelor’s degree,” he said. “It’s bad for our kids, and it’s bad for our economy.”

Children should have more opportunities to figure out where their skills and talents lie, while adults should have more access to continuing education and workforce training so they can keep up with a rapidly changing job market, he said.

Peterson said he would try to develop a “menu” of the jobs that Utah’s tech industry needs and collaborate with the state’s universities, colleges and technical schools to fill the demand for workers in those fields.