OGDEN — The race issue isn’t just dominating discussion at the national level.
It also figured big in the debate here among the four Republican hopefuls for Utah lieutenant governor, with the candidates — Deirdre Henderson, Victor Iverson, Rob Bishop and Michelle Kaufusi — offering mixed views.
Henderson, running mate on Spencer Cox‘s gubernatorial ticket, and Kaufusi, Jon Huntsman‘s running mate, seemed to put the most emphasis on the issue at Tuesday night’s gathering, though no fixes emerged. The four met ahead of the June 30 primary at the Weber State University campus in Ogden, the one and only debate among the hopefuls for lieutenant governor.
She doesn’t know what it is to be black “but I can choose to listen,” said Henderson, a Utah senator from Spanish Fork. “I can choose to see. I can choose to be an ally and I will.”
If one positive has emerged from the May 25 death of George Floyd, who was black, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer — the spur to the ongoing national debate about race — it’s that the issue is getting attention. “Now, I think a lot of people are starting to see that we do have a systemic problem in this country that has to be solved,” she said.
Kaufusi, the mayor of Provo, noted that her husband is from the South Pacific and that her children have “brown skin, brown eyes and black hair.” One of her kids, she said with chagrin, came home from school one day, noting that he and his siblings had been singled out as “the brown kids in the school,” which opened her eyes to the race issue.
“It’s a balance. It’s a real balance that we’ve got to take a deep dive into,” she said, also acknowledging the dangers police officers face and their dedication to duty. “Gov. Huntsman and I both believe enough is enough.”
She says the time has come for action, though she didn’t offer any specifics. “Something needs to happen. I hear their voices. I hear what they say. I look into my children’s eyes. I see it every day,” she said.
Bishop, Thomas Wright‘s running mate, said the governor’s office has limited leeway in dealing with issues like police brutality. The most direct means, he said, is perhaps through input in crafting the training curriculum police follow.
Racism, though, “is there and it needs to be discussed. We have to talk through it one way or another,” said Bishop, currently serving as 1st District representative in the U.S. House. It’s important to keep in mind, he went on, “that all of us are children of God and that we have that common denominator. So we need to start treating people as people, as individual people and not as a subgroup or a subset because all sorts of damage can come when we have that approach to it.”
Iverson, Greg Hughes‘ running mate, noted his efforts while a student at Dixie College in the 1990s to get the school to stop flying the Confederate flag on the campus. “We took a lot of grief for it, but it was the right thing to do,” he said, to foster a more welcoming environment at the school.
But lawmakers can’t legislate a fix to the race issue, Iverson said, saying personal behavior, being more inclusive and loving, is probably one means to help address it. “Institutional racism, it doesn’t exist everywhere, but it does exist in pockets and we have to work toward a more perfect union in America,” he said.
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic also figured prominently in the debate, serving as another point of departure among the candidates. The health restrictions implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have been a point of sharp debate. Some say they are needed as a health safeguard, while others maintain that they are heavy-handed and damaging to the economy.
Bishop, for his part, noted that many of the decisions on how to contend with the coronavirus have come via executive order from Gov. Gary Herbert, who isn’t seeking reelection. Going forward, though, leaders from the state’s executive and legislative branches need to meet and create protocols that give Utah legislators more say in such circumstances to spread the power in such circumstances, he said.
Iverson expressed concern with the restrictions implemented across Utah in the name of preventing the spread of the coronavirus. He touted the approach taken by leaders in South Dakota, who informed the public of the dangers and offered advice on how to stay healthy, with a limited emphasis on mandates.
Never did any of the measures in South Dakota, Iverson said, “start to violate the constitutional rights of the citizens.” Utah, he went on, could’ve put a focus on protecting vulnerable people without “flattening the economy of the state of Utah.”
Kaufusi, as Provo mayor, said she has followed the guidelines set out by health professionals in dealing with COVID-19, “which have been fantastic,” though complicated. “I feel like we’ve done the best we can with what we got,” she said.
Henderson noted that the state has had to act quickly, under pressure. Cox has helped lead the state’s response to the coronavirus. “It’s not been perfect, but again, there’s no precedent for this,” Henderson said.
The candidates also discussed the state’s rural economy and air pollution, among other topics.
The winner in the Republican gubernatorial primary on June 30 moves on to the Nov. 3 general election. Chris Peterson is running for governor as a Democrat.