Utah GOP calls out Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson for shunning debates

(Tribune file photos) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny WIlson, left, and Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs. Republicans are calling out Wilson on claims she has dodged any debates with her Republican challengers. Wilson's camp says they've had only one actual debate invitation and it was too close to the Nov. 3 election.

The Utah Republican Party is calling out Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson for turning down invitations to debate Trent Staggs, Riverton’s mayor and the challenger in this year’s mayoral election.

In a tweet posted Thursday morning, the party called on the mayor to appear with Staggs “so the people of our most populous county can make a side by side comparison and cast an informed vote.” It included a graphic that implied Wilson had declined debate requests from ABC4 Utah, Crossroads Urban Center, Pioneer Park Coalition and the Alta Club.

The Utah GOP attempted to get the hashtag “#WILSONWONTDEBATE” trending, but its post hadn’t gathered much traction as of Thursday afternoon with only a handful of retweets and 14 likes.

“Unsurprisingly, the Utah Republican Party is lying,” Ian Koski, a spokesperson for Wilson’s campaign, said in a written statement. “We’ve actually only received one invitation for a head-to-head debate and it was scheduled so close to Election Day that something like 85% of ballots would have already been filled out.”

Koski said that proposed debate was scheduled the last week of October. He added the remaining invitations were for one-on-one forums to be streamed online, and that Wilson has agreed to the Alta Club’s request to appear in such a forum later this month.

Reached by phone, Staggs said he was disappointed that he won’t be able to face off with the mayor before the election and have a dialogue about their priorities for the county.

"We’ve had four opportunities now to debate and she clearly doesn’t plan on doing them,” Staggs said. “There are a lot of serious issues that deserve to be debated so citizens have a full comparison of the candidates.”

Staggs also disputed the Wilson campaign’s claim that most of the invitations were for one-on-one discussions.

“The original intent there was to get us in a joint forum to debate and discuss. That was declined,” he said, adding that was also the case with the Alta Club invitation that Wilson accepted. “When I was first contacted by them two months ago, they were trying to work out a time to get us both there.”

Wilson’s campaign said the mayor is trying to accommodate as many requests to appear as possible while also juggling her official duties and a surge in COVID-19 cases in the county.

“Between managing the daily functions of the county government and managing the county’s pandemic response, Mayor Wilson hasn’t really had a lot of time for partisan politics,” Koski said. “She’s been busy trying to keep county residents safe.”

Salt Lake County GOP chair Scott Miller, however, stood by the party’s tweet, pointing to Mike Pence’s appearance in Wednesday night’s pre-election debate despite the vice president also serving as the head of the federal coronavirus task force.

“I think if the vice president can do a debate, she certainly could,” Miller said.

This is the first time Wilson has stood for public election as county mayor. She was selected by Democratic Party activists in early 2019 to replace former Mayor Ben McAdams when he left midterm to serve in Congress.

Just 719 Democratic delegates voted in that party election, in which Wilson, a County Council member since 2005, defeated Council colleague Arlyn Bradshaw and Shireen Ghorbani.

More than 400,000 registered Salt Lake County voters participated in the 2018 midterm election.