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—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.”

Review: State School Board District 11 Debate

Review: State School Board District 11 Debate

Last night, ABU and the John R. Park Debate Society of the University of Utah co-hosted their first local legislative debate of the 2016 election season. Lisa Cummins and Erin Preston debated educational issues in their nonpartisan race for the open District 11 Utah State School Board seat. The goal of these debates is to engage the public in political discourse with the hope of encouraging an informed electorate to take local elections as seriously as national ones. However, that goal is harder to achieve if the public isn’t in attendance. The Jordan School District enrolls over 52,000 students and employs nearly 4,500 teachers and staff members. That means at least 56,000 district residents are directly affected by School Board policy and though students have little ability to control the election outcome, their teachers, administrators, parents, guardians, coaches, and community members do. That makes the debate turnout of 28 people disappointing, especially considering half the audience was between the ages of 2 and 14. Now, I am not asserting that children below voting age should not attend such events; I firmly believe a child’s civic and political education should start at an early age and that parents should be among their teachers. I am asserting that those entrusted with making decisions on behalf of our students should vet a candidate before voting for her.

There are obviously obstacles to attending an event like this one—single parents may need to stay home with their children, guardians might work multiple jobs, location and transportation can be a hindrance, or some may not have heard a debate was even happening. ABU did its best to address these potential speedbumps by hosting the debate in a local community center—fewer than 5 miles from the candidates’ town of Herriman—advertising through Facebook, Twitter and local news outlets, and providing resources to the candidates to promote their debate, but these are often the same obstacles that prevent citizens from voting, particularly in local elections. I suspect the low event turnout reflects our larger struggle with voter turnout. Many argue that a lack of local election coverage by media outlets, misunderstanding of how local government functions, and a disbelief that decisions made by local officials affect the daily lives of citizens keeps interest and participation in local government low.

Local voter turnout in larger cities has, per a Governing report, consistently been below 30% since 2001. The Knight Foundation found that “voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections (36.3 percent) was the it’s been since World War II.” The Knight Foundation then corroborates the Governing report, citing that research shows only 20% of registered voters turn out for mayoral elections. Admittedly, this local voting cycle coincides with a presidential election—for which turnout is often closer to 60%—and more than the mayor is at stake.

However, the, shall we say, unique nature of the current presidential election may mean midterm and local election turnout doesn’t get the usual boost. An August ABC News/Washington Post poll confirmed what many already believed, virtually tied at a 60% unfavorability rating, former Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump are the least liked presidential candidates in over 30 years. Furthermore, a Pew Research poll found 57% of voters to be frustrated and 55% to be disgusted with these campaigns; only 15% were optimistic and at 10% even fewer were excited. There is reasonable speculation that many members of the American electorate may choose to stay home on November 8 because they’re disillusioned with the presidential election and strongly oppose both candidates. The consequence is that down the ballot races, including local races like that for the Utah State School Board District 11 seat, will in turn see fewer votes cast.

Local elections are incredibly important, and I will go to my grave affirming that to be true. When there’s at least a 60% chance you won’t like the person running our country come January, it is even more essential to choose local candidates wisely. I would encourage you to research these candidates thoroughly. Lisa Cummins and Erin Preston both have campaign websites ( and and have conducted numerous interviews regarding this race. Last night’s debate was broadcast via Facebook Live and recorded by KCPW (88.3 FM). And to make sure you get some candidate information before leaving this page, I have included below some of my favorite quotations from the debate—a highlight reel if you will.

1. Why are they running?

Cummins: “The college and career readiness mantra has been a joke.”

Preston: “I can only sit in the back of the room and have opinions for so long.”

2. How do they feel about teachers in our current system?

Cummins: “They are mandated and regulated beyond their capacity to perform.”

Preston: “We need specialists in the classroom.”

3. What about ESSA implementation and testing?

Cummins: It’s a “fallacy that ESSA gives more local control to states.” “Kids are going home with PTSD.”

Preston: “SAGE is broken, but it is not irredeemable.” “We need to have high standard.”

4. Where do they stand on college and career readiness?

Cummins: “Why limit them to critical thinking skills?”

Preston: “We’re not preparing them with the critical thinking skills they need.”

5. What is the role of parents in education?

Cummins: “Make parents understand they are the primary caretakers of their children’s education.”

Preston: “Parents are first and most important, advocates for their children.”

6. Their Platform, but Shorter:

Cummins: “Local control, local control, local control.”

Preston: “We can do better.”

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.