Utah senator squares off in election rematch with family physician she unseated in 2018

(Screenshot of virtual debate) State Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, top right, debated her Republican rival, physician Brian Zehnder, bottom left, during a Sept. 24, 2020, virtual forum hosted by the Better Utah Institute and League of Women Voters of Utah.

In an election rematch in southeast Salt Lake County, two state Senate candidates are playing up their respective roles — one as a physician and the other as a watchdog to the Republican supermajority — as they court votes during COVID-19.

Incumbent state Sen. Kathleen Riebe said that as a Democrat and a woman, she’s brought diversity to the Legislature and been the voice of dissent against some of the decisions her Republican colleagues have made in response to the coronavirus.

“The minority has the job of holding the line and asking those questions,” Riebe of Cottonwood Heights said Thursday during a virtual candidate forum. “As a minority member, I have reached out to my constituents to help me make policies that affect them. Our supermajority struggles with reaching out to that community, sometimes.”

On the other hand, Brian Zehnder, a medical doctor and former state lawmaker, said he believes his health expertise would be a significant asset as the Utah Legislature tries to chart its course through the pandemic.

Zehnder said he visited the Utah Capitol in March for the final day of the 2020 legislative session and watched in surprise as lawmakers embraced and shook hands with one another, even as the coronavirus pandemic was bearing down on the state.

“I thought to myself, ‘Goodness gracious, we need to have some medical expertise back on the Hill,'” the family physician said during the forum hosted by the Better Utah Institute and League of Women Voters of Utah.

Riebe and Zehnder are facing off for the second time for the Senate District 8 seat, having previously competed in the 2018 election. Zehnder was picked that year to fill the shoes of former state Sen. Brian Shiozawa, who exited the Utah Legislature to take a post in President Donald Trump’s administration.

However, Zehnder lost his new legislative post just a few months after landing it, when Riebe unseated him by a vote of 56% to 42%.

As the state grapples with a surge in coronavirus cases, Zehnder said he would rely on parents as the experts in keeping their kids safe and argued that it’s the job of government officials to arm Utahns with data to make these critical decisions. If elected to the Senate, he said he’d keep his focus trained on the needs of his constituents.

“As a family doc, parents trust me. Kids do, too,” he said. “And lawmakers, like doctors, need to be good listeners.”

Riebe agreed with Zehnder that the state’s response to the pandemic hasn’t been perfect and that lawmakers should be listening to medical experts. But she said they should also pay close attention to the diverse needs of their constituency, adding that she solicits input from local principals, business owners and other residents of her district to learn about their individual struggles.

The Democrat, a 20-year teacher in the Granite School District, said she’s concerned about the state’s lack of investment in public education, particularly during COVID-19.

“It is hard to retain and keep good teachers in Utah,” she said. “And especially with this current pandemic, many teachers retired and left the profession because they felt unsafe.”

Utah, which has for years ranked dead last in the nation in per-pupil funding, needs to do a better job of directing resources to its students, she said.

Zehnder agreed, although he warned that lawmakers shouldn’t “just throw money” at the problem and must steward taxpayer dollars wisely as they seek to increase funding for public schools.

The political rivals also talked about the ill-fated tax reform plan that the Legislature approved during a December special session. Lawmakers ended up repealing the package weeks later in the face of public pushback.

Riebe said she wasn’t part of crafting that plan, which would’ve increased the state’s sales tax on groceries and fuel while cutting taxes overall. But after touring the state and listening to residents, Riebe was confident the tax overhaul was not what Utahns wanted.

“I did not support this bill because I didn’t think that we should be taxing food,” she said. “There was a gas tax that was going to really hurt small businesses overwhelmingly."

However, there are problems with the state’s current tax system, Riebe acknowledged, and she expressed a willingness to consider restructuring options going forward.

Zehnder said he, too, is opposed to hiking the state’s food tax and is generally against tax increases except to fund critical government services, such as education and public safety.

“We have to understand that we’re getting less of whatever we’re taxing,” he said. “And so it’s important that any tax that we would be adding for any services, all would be for essential services for the citizens of our state requiring a consensus-building approach with as many stakeholders as possible.”