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Candidates for Utah’s empty congressional seat talk grades and guns in friendly debate

Salt Lake Tribune

By Courtney Tanner

From a manila folder full of notes and prepared comments, Provo Mayor John Curtis pulled out a photocopied paper with his fifth-grade report card and read it from the stage of a debate Friday night in the special election to fill Utah’s vacant congressional seat

For social behavior, his teacher, Miss Clyde, wrote, “can’t play well or work well with others.”

For arts: “works fine, he isn’t often a good sport.”

Curtis, the Republican congressional candidate and front-runner in the race, shared the comments to answer a question about education.

The new United Utah Party’s Jim Bennett responded: “Curtis’ fifth grade teacher has just demonstrated that he has the perfect qualifications to serve in the United States Congress.” The audience of nearly 300 laughed and clapped.

And that’s how the 90-minute debate went. It was a playful exchange in which the four top-polling contenders described their models for how government should work and shared a few zingers.

One topic not brought up by the moderator during the seven-question debate was President Donald Trump — who has been at the center of tense issues during this special-election campaign.

“He needs to be stood up to,” Democrat Kathie Allen said in her closing remarks, suggesting that some of Trump’s policies are sexist and racist.

Bennett had called out Curtis in a debate earlier this week for indicating that he supports the president’s agenda but not his “distractions.” The minor-party contender said Friday that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the mayor to “distance himself from the worst aspects of Trump.”

“To me, this is about my message, not his,” Curtis said after the debate. “I don’t get asked about Trump out on the campaign trail. People want to know how we’re going to solve problems.”

Though not expressly stated, alignment with the president underscored the discussion on immigration. Libertarian Joe Buchman lamented that “we have crazy proposals to somehow lockdown the borders of America to keep people out.”

Allen and Bennett also slammed the idea of a border wall between the United States and Mexico — a Trump initiative — while Curtis emphasized that he supports what will “make us the safest” but isn’t married to the idea of a physical barrier.

Bennett again questioned Curtis for running two campaign ads on Facebook — one exhorting Congress to “build the wall” and the other calling to “stop sanctuary cities” — that were later taken down and for which he apologized.

“To this day, I do not know if John Curtis supports a border wall or not,” Bennett said.

The mayor responded that his position has not changed. He also did not bring up a tweet from Allen that his campaign called racist.

Curtis, Bennett and Buchman aligned the most on health care, with each calling for reform to include more free market initiatives (though Bennett would also like to see expansions of catastrophe coverage).

Allen, a longtime physician and first-time candidate, supports universal health care. She wanted, but was not granted, a rebuttal to her opponents, who suggested that government-run insurance is not efficient.

“Health care is not a commodity,” she said.

The candidates also discussed partisanship, criminal justice reform and public lands. The talk on gun control focused on bump stocks, which convert semiautomatic rifles into essentially automatic guns, after they were used by the gunman of the mass shooting in Las Vegas this month.

Curtis, who ran a a shooting-range company for 10 years, defended the 2nd Amendment as “non-negotiable.” He agreed with his competitors, though, in calling for more conversations about reform and possible warning signs that could stop future perpetrators. Buchman said America needs to “look in the mirror about how we tolerate violence.”

The mayor has polled strongly in the race, nearly 38 percentage points ahead of Allen, more than 48 ahead of Bennett and nearly 53 ahead of Buchman in the deeply red 3rd Congressional District.

The event, hosted by the Alliance for a Better Utah and the University of Utah’s debate society, ended with a question on leadership. Bennett, son of the late three-term Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, suggested that Democrats and Republicans “have gone off their respective cliffs” and billed himself as an “honest broker between both sides.” He was a Republican but left the party when Trump was nominated in the 2016 presidential race.

“I was heartbroken to watch the party of [Abraham] Lincoln and the party of [Ronald] Reagan transform into the party of Trump,” he said.

Curtis pledged to legislate “regardless of party affiliation.” Allen said former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, whose seat the candidates are looking to take, “wasn’t a particularly good public servant, and I would like to put service back in public service.” And Buchman said it’s the candidates’ job to be “on the right side of the issues.”

There is at least one more debate before the Nov. 7 election. It is set for Wednesday, starting at 6 p.m., at Brigham Young University’s KBYU Studios.

Read the entire Salt Lake Tribune article here.

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