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Ogden mayoral debate focus of intense scrutiny after candidate pulls out

By Tim Vandenack - | Oct 18, 2023

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Taylor Knuth, left, and Ben Nadolski are vying to be Ogden's next mayor. They are facing off in this year's general election, which concludes Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023.

OGDEN — Ogden mayoral hopeful Ben Nadolski is not unwilling to debate Taylor Knuth, his opponent, says Daniela Harding, Nadolski’s campaign manager.

“Ben wants to debate Taylor. Ben will debate Taylor any day,” she said.

But when a University of Utah debate organization opted not to participate in a debate set for Wednesday between the two hopefuls, it raised a red flag for the Nadolski camp, ultimately spurring him to decide to sit out the forum as well. That led to a debate about the mayoral debate on Tuesday between the two hopefuls and speculation about the possible injection of partisan politics in the nonpartisan contest.

“All the Ben Nadolski campaign is asking for is a fair and unbiased moderator and venue,” Harding said.

The University of Utah’s John R. Park Debate Society had been slated to team with the Alliance for a Better Utah in overseeing Wednesday’s forum but announced on Oct. 4 that it was withdrawing from co-host duties. While Nadolski and his team trusted the debate society as a nonpartisan group, they weren’t so sure about the Alliance, a nonprofit civic group led by Jeff Merchant. Merchant is a former chairperson of the Utah Democratic Party, Harding pointed out.

Thus, when the Nadolski campaign didn’t get additional information from the Alliance about debate plans after the University of Utah group dropped out, Nadolski, too, opted to withdraw from the encounter. Harding advised Alliance officials of the decision on Oct. 11, according to a copy of the email she sent them, supplied to the Standard-Examiner. She issued a public statement on Monday. Among the unanswered questions that worried them — who would moderate the debate if not a John R. Park Debate Society rep?

Wednesday’s event, starting at 6 p.m. on the Weber State University campus, will go on, even if just Knuth will be there. As it’s just one candidate — though Nadolski is still welcome to take part — Merchant said he will moderate.

Through it all, Nadolski’s people emphasized that he isn’t dodging Knuth. The two hopefuls are set to debate in another event on Thursday hosted by KUER and Weber State. They’ve met before during the campaign in other settings.

“We are happy to debate. That’s not the issue. But we want a fair debate,” said Harding. “I want it made clear — Ben is not afraid to debate with Taylor. He is willing to talk about the issues in Ogden anytime.”

Amid concerns of partisanship, Knuth, meantime, emphasized — as has Nadolski — that the mayoral contest is a nonpartisan one. He also pointed to his participation in a range of forums so far during the campaign, as if to answer back to Nadolski’s concerns that the Alliance for a Better Utah event would be particularly biased.

“I have participated in debates hosted by many organizations across the political spectrum, including the Weber County Republican Women,” Knuth said in an emailed statement. “Most importantly, the issues facing our city are not partisan. Public safety, housing stability, economic development and infrastructure are not partisan.”

He thinks there are larger issues. “This is a continued distraction from the real issues our city is facing… Let’s get back to the basics of good government and leave divisive, partisan politics out of it,” Knuth said.

Knuth sat out an Oct. 5 forum that Nadolski attended because of an Ogden School Foundation event that evening. Among other events, both hopefuls took part in a forum hosted by Latinos United Promoting Education and Civic Engagement, co-founded by Luis Lopez, a member of the Ogden City Council and a Nadolski backer.

Wednesday’s 6 p.m. event featuring Knuth will be held at Wildcat Theater in the Shepherd Union at Weber State. Thursday’s debate involving both mayoral hopefuls starts at 6:30 p.m. and will be held in Room 101 of Lindquist Hall on the Weber State campus.

Voting in the race and other municipal contests across Weber County culminates Nov. 21. The winner in the Ogden mayoral contest will replace Mike Caldwell, who’s not running for reelection.


Notwithstanding the Nadolski camp’s reservations, Merchant said Nadolski would have gotten “a fair shot” at the Shepherd Union debate hosted by the Alliance. “I’m not interested in any type of a ‘gotcha,’ to be honest,” Merchant said.

He understands that his involvement with the Democratic Party could be a concern, Merchant said. But Nadolski’s people reportedly never brought the issue up. If they had, he said he would’ve taken steps to quell their concerns.

A rep from the John R. Park Debate Society said that group had co-facilitated debates with the Alliance for a Better Utah Institute since 2014. But “differing visions” on proposed events going forward prompted the university group to bow out of the partnership, said Jeannie Hunt, the society director.

“We have every confidence that the new vision for these events developed by Better Utah will be successful,” Hunt said in a statement. University officials didn’t clarify the “differing visions.”

As for partisan involvement in the campaign, the Weber County Democratic Party has not taken a stance on the race, according to Kate Nielsen, though she personally backs Knuth.

The Weber County Republican Party will be backing a candidate, but Jake Sawyer, the party chairperson, said the announcement of its pick won’t be made until later this week.

Harding, Nadolski’s campaign manager, is a former chairperson of the Davis County Republican Party. That, though, shouldn’t be taken as a suggestion of Nadolski’s leaning. She was hired, she said, “because of all my work in previous nonpartisan campaigns.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with a new Knuth quote and to fix incorrect information the Standard-Examiner received from a Weber County Democratic Party official related to the party’s position on the mayoral candidates. The Democratic Party has not endorsed any candidate.


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