Review: House District 44 Debate

Review: House District 44 Debate

Monday was the last in the four-debate series cosponsored by the Alliance for a Better Utah Education Fund and the John R. Park Debate Society from the University of Utah. The debate was between Republican Bruce Cutler and Democrat Christine Passey, running for Utah House District 44. It represents the second rematch in our series and this one is sure to be a nail-biter. In 2014, now Representative Cutler beat Christine Passey by 53 votes after two weeks of recounts. An emotional rollercoaster I’m sure they’d rather not relive, but one they might be riding again in a few weeks. If anyone reading this ever thought their vote didn’t matter, this is the race that proves every vote counts.

Christine Passey absolutely shines when discussing issues of healthcare, insurance, and Medicaid. In her introduction, she spoke of her autistic daughter, Skylynn, and their struggle to maintain an insurance plan that would adequately cover her care. Christine Passey then did what few, even in Washington, have: she took on the insurance lobby and won. Before she ever ran for election, she helped pass legislation to insure Utah’s children. Throughout the debate, she hit home the importance to vaccination, mental health, and disability care. And when asked whether criticism of the Utah’s recent (but small) steps toward Medicaid expansion is warranted, she said “absolutely.” She could not see herself saying “we did something” and having it be enough; that would be a “cop out” for Christine Passey. She at one point described herself as “just a mom mad that the insurance company told me they couldn’t help my kid,” but that simplification does her a disservice. Christine Passey is an angry mother, but she’s also a person who sees a problem and works relentlessly until that problem is inarguably solved.

Representative Bruce Cutler is delightful. He could sell a heat lamp to a Texan in August. When preparing for these debates, the candidates were asked to suggest the topics they would most like to discuss. Representative Cutler included “religious liberty” on his list. Most people react strongly to this topic; Republicans tend to get up in arms about the First Amendment, while Democrats get heated about legalizing discrimination. It is not what I would have suggested, but after his response, I understood why Representative Cutler did. He served on the judiciary committee that created and passed the Utah legislative compromise touted by both the LDS Church and the LGBTQ+ community, and described it as a “beautiful experience.” He drew a hard line, stating that “discrimination is not something we should be doing” period, but wanted all people to feel free to express their religious beliefs and have civil conversations about their disagreements. That is all he’s after. He lauded Utah’s legislation, which prevents housing and hiring discrimination. His remarks were without hate and showed deep respect for the protection of all ways of life, even those with which he might not agree.

I could write more than any of you would want to read about this debate (it was content-heavy and thoroughly excellent) so to save us all some time, I opted to detail what I believe was each candidate’s stand-out moment. Keeping on trend, I will encourage you to watch the ABU stream, read their live tweets, or tune into KCPW when they air the debate recording.

If you’re new to Utah (like I am) or not up on local politics, this debate answered any questions one might have about why this race was so close last election and why it probably will be again. It was highly competitive, and not in a lesser of two evils, they’re both equally dumb, kind of way. It was tight in a “wow the people of District 44 are lucky” kind of way. I’ve seen candidates on the national stage who are far less charming, articulate, and well-prepared. I turned in my vote-by-mail ballot earlier that day, which included a vote for a United States Senate candidate I’d trust far less than either Christine Passey or Bruce Cutler. Either of them could win this seat and do justice to their office. Honestly, I wish the Utah Legislature could have them both. This is what local politics should look like.

Review: House District 34 Debate

Review: House District 34 Debate

To be frank, I remember very little of Thursday’s House District 34 debate between Republican Mr. Macade Jensen and Democrat Dr. Karen Kwan. Not because it wasn’t an interesting debate; it was. If you don’t believe me, listen KCPW’s recording, watch ABU’s stream, or read through ABU’s twitter feed. My legislative haze comes from the fact I was given the incredible opportunity to moderate Thursday’s debate. It was a dream come true, but that meant I spent most of the evening feeling like I was about to pass out. Up until that point, all my debate work was behind the scenes. I researched topics, revised the questions, attended staff meetings, took a lot of notes, and wrote post-debate blogs—none of which is any easier and all of which is more time consuming but doesn’t have the same effect on your nerves.

Moderating could be the final round of the multi-tasking Olympics. You have a stack of housekeeping notes, more questions than you can ask, and a stop watch. Your job is to give the intro, clarify—and remember—the debate format, follow response order procedures, ask questions—making sure you get to the same number of each candidate’s requested topic areas—manage the audience, conclude the debate, and thank all the right people. And you need to do all of it in 58 minutes and 30 seconds to make it a perfect hour of radio. It’s safe to say, it was a lot harder than Anderson Cooper makes it look.

The portions of the debate I recall best is the discussion of party politics and the Republican supermajority. The candidates fundamentally disagreed on the effectiveness of the current Republican supermajority and transparency in the Utah legislature. Dr. Kwan asserted that too much happened behind caucus doors, meaning little was accomplished and most of that was without transparency. Mr. Jensen responded by stating that the caucus doors only closed twice in the last legislative session and that being a member of the supermajority would amplify his voice in the House, allowing him to accomplish more as a representative than she.

Whether one likes it or not, Gallup declared Utah one of the two most Republican states in the nation in 2015. Gallup’s not wrong because Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1980, the state has been run by a Republican trifecta—the combination of a Republican governor, house majority, and senate majority—since 1992, currently the longest streak in the country. As of this month, Republicans hold 63 of the 75 Utah State House seats and 23 of the 29 Utah State Senate seats. And (valid, nationally recognized) accusations of gerrymandering aside, there are a little over 1.3 million active registered voters in the state of Utah—according to Utah.gov—and as of October 3, 647,188 of them are Republicans, 145,145 are Democrats, 491,180 are unaffiliated and around 25,000 belong to other parties. Assuming the independent voters are not exclusively Democratic, Republicans far outweigh Democrats in the state in terms of active registered voters, mirroring legislative proportions fairly closely. Does that mean the Republican legislators and state leaders hold the same values and vote on legislation exactly as their Republican constituents would? Absolutely not. Does this mean Democrats and third-party candidates shouldn’t challenge Republicans in any and every election? Absolutely not. If I didn’t think public discourse, political dialogue, and competing ideas were essential to a healthy democracy, I wouldn’t be involved in this debate series.

All this data is not to make the argument that Utah’s state legislature perfectly reflects the will of the citizens or that it should stay as heavily partisan as it is—I cannot see myself ever making that argument. I am (perhaps circuitously) setting up the most unique moment of the House District 34 debate. The last question I asked the candidates was why a voter who is undecided or of the opposite party should vote for them, rather than their opponent. Dr. Kwan affirmed her belief in bipartisanship and the inclusion of diverse voices, and that her goal is to serve constituents, not be the voice of a single party. That is exactly the type of appeal to independent, small party, and moderate Republican voters she needs to make, considering her comparatively small base. Mr. Jensen, on the other hand, quoted Dr. Kwan. He claimed she once called him a “Democrat in Secret.” I can only assume she did so with the above data in mind, thinking accusations of a leftward lean would alienate him from strong Republican and conservative voters on which his election may depend. Indeed, the statement may have served as a kill shot in a Republican primary. However, Republican voters choosing between a centrist Republican and a self-identifying Democrat will probably still choose the Republican, moderate or not. The moderation may even help. What’s more, centrist Democrats may take Dr. Kwan at her word that Mr. Jensen is secretly a Democrat and choose to vote for the Democrat most likely (remember all that data) to be elected and able to work with the legislative supermajority in Utah’s Republican trifecta.

Of course, I won’t rule out the possibility that as a student of rhetoric and political communication, I’m reading too far into and attributing too much significance to one answer to a relatively simple question. Like I said, I spent most of the night trying not to freak out or fall over. Listen to the debate and decide for yourself. As a well-informed voter on election day, you’ll be glad you did.

Review: House District 49 Debate

Review: House District 49 Debate

The second debate in the ABU Education Fund and John R. Park Debate Society co-sponsored legislative debate series (say that five times fast) was between Republican Robert Spendlove and Democrat Zach Robinson. Representative Spendlove is the incumbent for the House District 49 seat, but that doesn’t guarantee a smooth ride back into office. This year’s race is the highly anticipated sequel to the original 2014 election when these same two candidates ran against one another for the seat Representative Spendlove eventually won. Despite losing by an almost 14-point margin, Zach Robinson is back for round two. It can only be billed as the friendliest grudge match in Utah.

Last night’s debate was evenly matched, giving both candidates a chance to shine. However, that does not mean they were without their faults. Constituents may feel they already know these men and where they stand, yet the room was anything but empty. Whether they were there for the issues or the show is anyone’s guess; a child did throw up in the back row so the night was not without spectacle. But a discussion and dissection of Spendlove and Robinson’s performances is useful to show a changing citizenry how these men may have evolved. This race is a sequel and not a tired remake after all.

Robinson opened the debate with an introduction in which he framed himself as a humble civil servant. He used the first third of his speech to thank, well, everybody—for attending, for organizing, for supporting him, even for running against him. From there, he emphasized his commitment to community and family, saying he was there “not only as a candidate, but as a family man” and former fire fighter. Robinson explained that as a first-responder he “got to help everybody.” His roles as a father and fire-fighter were emphasized throughout the debate, particularly in his categorization of certain debate topics as “collaborative” or “people” issues. Representative Spendlove portrayed himself as an experienced and effective politician who is always open to dialogue, going so far as to declare his “only wish is that there were more of these debates going on,” and lamenting that so many Utah races go uncontested. He cited the two committees to which he was appointed and continued the motif in several of his question responses by citing specific legislation he had sponsored, drafted, or for which he had voted. His closing remarks contained a fairly impressive laundry list of awards and endorsements. Robinson was the charming outsider who cares and Spendlove was the man to “face [difficult issues] head on.” Or they were at first.

Despite thanking Representative Spendlove in his opening remarks, Robinson made every effort to highlight the areas in which he and the Representative disagreed. “I think we probably differ” could be his catchphrase. Robinson repeatedly brought up regulation, or the “r word” as he called it, and every time he did it was not without mention of how little Utahns like the “r word.” The first time it was charming, even funny, but the broken record feeling set in and it began to feel like he was combating his constituents and not his opponent. Representative Spendlove has a similar problem. He billed himself as a man willing to tackle the hard issues and get things done, but his favorite tune was the “failure of the federal government” and he played it on loop. Regardless of whether one believes Utah’s problems are the fault of Washington (and I leave that up to you to decide), placing blame is not a solution. But you know what both candidates think is the solution, to everything? Education. Now I’m not knocking a good education. I had one and I came back for more and I know just how much it’s worth, but I disagree with both candidates that handing citizens information about issues will miraculously fix all the state’s problems. I’m sorry Representative Spendlove, but education won’t fix our air quality issues, cutting pollution might. And I apologize Mr. Robinson, but education isn’t the instant cure for domestic violence related homelessness; increased support for women’s shelters could help.

This is not to say that both candidates did not contribute meaningful analysis to the issues currently facing the state; they did and I would highly recommend listening to their excellent debate, which was broadcast by the ABU Education Fund on Facebook and their website, and will be aired on the radio by KCPW next week. These are two engaged and compassionate candidates. I hope that listening carefully and critiquing elements of their platforms and public presentations will push them to be even better. Robinson thinks of his campaign is a “job interview” and Representative Spendlove posited that “elections are about decision.” They’re right. Be sure that you, as a citizen and a voter, are asking the right questions to make the best decisions. In the wise (and highly practical) words of Mr. Robinson, “ballots went out yesterday. Don’t forget to sign the back.”

2014 Senate District 4 Debate Recording

2014 Senate District 4 Debate Recording

Democrat Jani Iwamoto and Republican Sabrina Petersen debate on October 7, 2014 at Holladay City Hall’s Big Cottonwood Room. Iwamoto and Petersen are vying for the Senate District 4 seat being vacated by State Senator Pat Jones (D). The event was sponsored by ABU Education Fund, an affiliate of Alliance for a Better Utah, the University of Utah’s John R. Park Debate Society and KCPW.

 

This recording was originally posted by KCPW on October 9, 2014. You can see the original post here.