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.”