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Candidates for governor discuss COVID-19 response, unemployment

Utah is guaranteed a new state leader this year, as Gov. Gary Herbert announced he will not run for re-election — finishing his 10-year tenure in 2020. This leaves the seat open for the first time in over a decade.

Current Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is running as the Republican nominee against opponent Democrat Chris Peterson, a law professor from the University of Utah.

The gubernatorial debate hosted Tuesday by the Utah Debate Commission came at an interesting time, finishing just minutes before the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden began.

However, the two candidates were able to dive into their views on the state COVID-19 response, unemployment and the overall quality of life in Utah.

Read below to see where the candidates stand on the issues that were discussed during the Tuesday debate. For a recap on the highlights, listen to the newest episode of Behind the Ballot on our Spotify, SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.

During the debate, Cox said he believes Utah has a bright future despite the challenges it has seen in 2020. He said he would want his administration to be remembered for “look[ing] like today, only better.”

To do this, he said his administration would focus on education — by increasing opportunities so all Utahns can enjoy the advantages. Although Utah is dead last in the country for per-pupil spending, Cox said that aspect is largely an equity issue — with some school districts above the national average spending level and others below.

He said he would focus on this issue to create an equitable distribution for school districts throughout the state. 

Q: What would you do about mask-wearing in the state?

Cox said he, along with the governor, believe wearing masks is crucial to curb the spread of the virus. He urged college students and young people — who are heading the recent spike of COVID cases in the state — to take the virus seriously.

Gov. Gary Herbert appointed Cox as the head of the state COVID-19 task force when the pandemic began. However, Democrat opponent Chris Peterson has called on Cox to step down — noting conflicts with his position in government.

Q: If you were in office, would you issue a statewide mask mandate today?

Not necessarily. Cox said he “supports where we are today” in terms of the COVID-19 response. He said he would leave it up to individual communities to decide whether to issue a mandate, which is how the response currently operates.

In fact, Cox said a statewide mandate wouldn’t be as effective. If a state needs a law to start wearing masks, the residents probably wouldn’t anyway, he said.

Q: Why should you remain as the head of the State of Utah COVID-19 Response?

Despite Peterson’s arguments, Cox pushed back to say the response team is doing all it can to fight the coronavirus. According to Cox, the task force brings in several experts from the medical community to make recommendations to the governor.

Then, the state government decides whether to implement them.

Q: How do we maintain the quality of life we pride ourselves on in Utah?

According to the lieutenant governor, Utah should be proud of the quality of life it has created for its residents. However, it can’t be maintained “if we aren’t careful,” he said.

Part of this includes increased investment in mass transit, teleworking opportunities and affordable infrastructure.

Q: How will we get unemployed Utahns back to work?

Although Utah has taken a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, Cox said the state has lost fewer jobs compared to the rest of the country — which is “something to celebrate.”

Moving forward, he said the state should invest in training for skilled workers in high-demand jobs that are struggling amid the pandemic.

Overall, he said he’s “optimistic” about the future — expecting Utah to make a bounceback faster than the rest of the country.

Q: How would you restore faith in the police?

Cox said it comes down to two things: Competency and ethics.

Over the last three months, the lieutenant governor said he’s been appreciative of the efforts from police chiefs to address issues and make changes.

Trailing in the polls, Peterson spent the debate attempting to separate himself from his opponent — painting himself as a “reasonable moderate” that will make necessary changes.

Peterson focused on a government that would improve the economy, increase per-pupil spending and implement fairer taxes. He said he would also focus on better healthcare access — which has been highlighted throughout the pandemic.

As governor, Peterson said he would listen to the voters. He pointed to previous ballot initiatives that were passed by the majority of Utah voters — but later changed and “watered down” during the legislative session.

Q: What would you do about mask-wearing in the state?

Peterson said wearing masks are a simple, yet effective, way to limit the spread of COVID-19. However, it’s only one tactic the state needs to implement.

The law professor said he would focus on improving test processing times, increasing contact tracing efforts and addressing PPE shortages.

Q: If you were in office, would you issue a statewide mask mandate today?

Yes. Peterson said he’s been calling for a statewide mandate since July.

Q: Why should Spencer Cox step down from the State of Utah COVID-19 Response?

Peterson called on Gov. Gary Herbert to remove Cox from the head of the state coronavirus task force Sept. 18 — saying the lieutenant governor “crossed out of his lane.”

Instead of politicians and elected officials taking control, Peterson said the state should rely on medical experts to make those decisions. Instead, he said the COVID response has gone “off track” with the recent spike in cases.

Q: How do we maintain the quality of life we pride ourselves on in Utah?

Peterson said the state must focus on education funding in order to maintain a high quality of life — noting Utah is “dead last” in the country for per-pupil spending.

He also pointed toward air quality, economic development in rural Utah and affordable housing. He said he would focus on establishing an economy that focuses on creating careers rather than just jobs.

Q: How will we get unemployed Utahns back to work?

The key to addressing unemployment isn’t necessarily the economy, according to Peterson. Instead, it’s tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Peterson said many industries — like restaurants, stores and theaters — are suffering because Utahns don’t want to risk getting sick. The economy can’t improve until the pandemic is “under control.”

Q: How would you restore faith in the police?

The law professor said he would do anything he can to restore trust in law enforcement. While he doesn’t support “defunding the police,” he said he would increase mental health management, bias training and de-escalation strategies.

Peterson said he would also look to increase community involvement in policing decisions.


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Cami Mondeaux is a senior communication major with a minor in sociology. She’s worked in journalism for three years completing several internships in radio as well as a print internship stationed in Washington, D.C. Now, Cami works as a reporter and digital content producer for KSL NewsRadio covering breaking news and local government. When she doesn’t have her nose stuck in the headlines, Cami enjoys listening to podcasts, drinking iced coffee and continuing her quest to find the tastiest burrito in Salt Lake City.

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