VERNAL — Eleven of the 12 Republican hopefuls for Utah’s 1st District U.S. House seat faced off Tuesday in a virtual debate that touched on coronavirus, bipartisanship in Washington, D.C., and more.

It was the first time so many of the candidates in the crowded field came together, even if only via an electronic connection. And it will likely be the only time they appear at the same time in a live format ahead of the April 25 Utah Republican Party convention, when the field will be whittled.

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop now holds the 1st District post, covering Weber County, northern Davis County and eight other counties in northern and northeastern Utah. But he’s not running for the seat again and instead is vying for Utah lieutenant governor on the ticket of GOP gubernatorial hopeful Thomas Wright.

With coronavirus dominating the headlines, that was the focus of the first question the candidates faced. Several put the focus on jumpstarting the economy and getting people back to work. Jobless claims have skyrocketed across the country due to the economic slowdown, stemming from orders and recommendations for the public to stay home to curtail coronavirus’s spread.

Younger people, said Catherine Hammon, a candidate originally from Weber County but now living in Murray, “should be able to go to work.” Likewise, Blake Moore, who works for a management consulting firm in Salt Lake City, said leaders should put the focus on “how to safely open the economy.” Bob Stevenson, a Davis County commissioner, and Howard Wallack, a retired businessman living in Summit County, echoed that.

“Now that I think that we have enough information and I think we have enough care and bed capacity, it’s time to get the economy open again,” said Zach Hartman, originally from Weber County and now living in Summit County.

Chadwick Fairbanks III, also from Summit County, said constitutional liberties “shouldn’t be suspended for any reason,” including dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Leaders and public health officials across the country have called for a range of restrictions on movements to help halt coronavirus’s spread.

Kerry Gibson, former head of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said addressing the situation is something that should spring from the local and state level, a sentiment echoed by Mark Shepherd, the Clearfield mayor. “This is something our state and local leaders should be taking a lead on,” Gibson said.

Katie Witt, the Kaysville mayor, lauded the national response to coronavirus, focused on preventing its spread and minimizing the resulting death count, as the nation’s “commitment to a culture of life.” She would carry on that commitment in Congress by advocating for the unborn and fighting “the drug epidemic.”

Tina Cannon, a Morgan County councilwoman, said the situation underscores a “very serious” national security concern: dependence on foreign nations for the medical equipment needed to fight coronavirus.

The debate was sponsored by the Vernal Area Chamber of Commerce and Uintah County media outlets ChannelV6.com and UBMedia.biz and moderated by Sonja Norton, former Vernal mayor. Candidates connected via a video-conferencing platform with Norton, and dealing with bipartisan bickering in Washington, D.C., was the focus of another question she put to them.

Hammon lamented the state of Democratic leadership in the nation’s capital, saying many of the party’s leaders “are openly advocating socialism and we can’t compromise on that.” As a lawmaker, she’d defend the free-market system and focus on “defeating the Democrats at the ballot box.”

Moore used the occasion to express similar concerns about creeping socialism. “We need to ignite and inspire this generation so that they don’t fall into the depths of socialism,” he said.

Shephard noted his efforts as Clearfield mayor working with the Clearfield City Council and his focus on getting along. Gibson, who’s from Weber County, noted his efforts as a member of the Utah House working with other lawmakers, saying “that led me to be able to truly accomplish things.”

Otherwise, the candidates used Tuesday’s forum to tout their approach, worldview and background.

Douglas Durbano, a businessman and lawyer who lives in Mountain Green, focused on the U.S. Constitution as a guiding document for him and touted his lack of experience as an elected official. “I’ve never been elected to a single office. Not a politician, hope never to be one. I like the term statesman, someone who’s more interested in principles than popularity,” he said.

Cannon cited her business experience and political experience on the Morgan County Council. Gibson noted his upbringing on a Weber County farm. Shepherd said keeping the infrastructure up to speed as the region grows is a big issue. Stevenson noted his service as Layton mayor and on the Layton City Council.

Witt and Stevenson successfully petitioned for a place on the June 30 primary, and as many as two more GOP primary candidates could come out of the April 25 Republican convention, when party delegates vote on their preferences. J.C. DeYoung was the only Republican candidate who didn’t take part in Tuesday’s debate.

Two Democrats are also seeking the 1st District seat, Jamie Cheek and Darren Parry. They are scheduled to meet in a virtual town hall meeting on Saturday that only Utah Democratic Party delegates will be able to view.

The winners of the Democratic and Republican primaries meet in the Nov. 3 general election.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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