The eight candidates in this year’s race to represent Utah’s 3rd Congressional District met together last week for the first time at Star Hall to speak in a public forum organized and hosted by a nonpartisan group of Moab residents.
The Aug. 15 primary race for the GOP nomination put Republican front-runner John Curtis in the national spotlight, and Democratic candidate Kathie Allen has been featured on national television after pledging to run for the seat in 2018. But the two major party candidates were equals during the event among political aspirants sharing their views in the race for the congressional seat that former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, vacated in June.
Speakers included Allen, Curtis and United Utah Party candidate Jim Bennett; Libertarian Party candidate Joe Buchman; Independent American Party candidate Jason Christensen; unaffiliated candidate Sean Whalen; Green Party write-in candidate Brendan Phillips; and write-in candidate Russell Roesler.
Organized as a public forum rather than a debate, the event was intended to educate and inform the community, event organizer Bill Topper said. The overall tone of the evening was friendly, and the audience of about 75 people was engaged for the entire two hours, asking questions and offering applause and even laughter at intervals.
The forum opened with introductions, followed by each candidate’s prepared thoughts on five questions provided in advance on issues affecting the district: health care, public lands, energy policy, education and each candidate’s general approach to collaborative problem-solving.
Though their views on the most effective level of governance varied widely, all candidates agreed that states should be free to consider marijuana legal for medicinal use. They also expressed a desire to help reform the federal government and the two major political parties.
“One of the things that’s very remarkable about our current political environment is we have a House and a Senate and a White House that are all under control of one party, and yet this Congress is on track to be the most unproductive Congress in 164 years,” said Bennett, who broke with the Republican Party following the election of President Donald J. Trump to join the newly formed United Utah Party.
A federal judge upheld the United Utah Party’s right to enter a candidate in the race after Utah election officials rejected Bennett’s initial filing, saying the party had failed to meet the accelerated deadlines of the special election. The party sued in June and received the ruling in its favor in August.
Bennett likened his to campaign to that of Abraham Lincoln, who, as a Republican, was a third-party candidate seeking to help reform a broken two-party system. He also invoked the collaboration and compromise engaged in by his father, the late Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, as being at the heart of his political philosophy.
“The only way we do any of these things is if we work together,” he said. “And that’s the reason I’m running with the United Utah Party, because the two-party system is broken.”
Curtis, who currently serves as Provo’s mayor, joined the race after gathering enough signatures to run against Republican Party nominee Chris Herrod. The race brought him and the voting district into the national spotlight, as he beat the caucus system criticized for its exclusivity when voters turned out in the primary to overwhelmingly support him as their candidate.
“I believe … that the hardest layer of government is the city government,” Curtis said. “We deal with issues like putting roads in places people don’t want roads. We tell people that their fences are too high. We do difficult things, and we’re in the community.”
Citing his 94 percent approval rating in Provo and fiscal successes, including cutting the city budget by 8 percent while growing services and the city’s overall tax base, he credited his success to collaboration.
“I don’t think you can do that without pulling people in and talking through difficult issues,” he said. “I believe I’m uniquely qualified to deal with this D.C. environment where people are not working together, and believe we have to find answers to solve very difficult problems, and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last eight years for the city of Provo.”
Republicans hold every statewide elected office and congressional seat in Utah, and control both the state House and Senate.
Despite this, Democratic candidate Allen, a West Jordan-based family physician for 30 years, began her campaign in February against Chaffetz. She anticipated that she would be running against him in the 2018 election cycle, but when Chaffetz vacated his seat in June, she won the Democratic nomination by an easy majority and has been supported by prominent Democrats nationwide.
“Our public servants are beholden to special interests. I won’t be,” she said, adding that her campaign will not accept donations from corporations. “Corporations are not people. I want to answer solely to you, my constituents.”
Vowing to work as a “healer” in Congress, she committed to join the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of more than 40 House members committed to working together to determine solutions for America’s health-care system and voting as a bloc for reform.
Those running independently and as candidates for smaller parties acknowledged that the chances of being elected in November are slim, and explained early on that their approach to the race is as an opportunity to share the principles of their party.
“I didn’t file to run for Congress,” Independent American Party candidate Christensen said. “I hate (the) federal government … My purpose for getting into the race is to promote the third-largest political party in Utah, to get prepared for 2018 and 2020. However, since I am in the race, I might as well promote the proper principles.”
“We’re dealing with a gushing wound here and we’re trying to put Band-Aids on it, and at some point you’ve just got to cut the limb off,” unaffiliated candidate Whalen said. “Sometimes you have to fight.”
Less radical but similarly disenchanted with the American system of governance, Libertarian Party candidate Buchman presented the principles of his party – non-aggression and self-ownership – as being in line with his personal principles. Vowing to speak truth to power, he said he would work to shed light on incompetence in Washington, D.C.
“I would bring attention every week to something that could be changed in D.C. that’s costing us money for so many reasons,” Buchman said.
The two write-in candidates included Green Party nominee Brendan Phillips and Russell Roesler of Sandy.
Phillips hopes his write-in campaign will bring attention to Utah’s Green Party, which is collecting the 2,000 signatures necessary to be considered a qualified political party in Utah.
Even though the event lasted just over two hours, candidates and attendees mingled afterward, continuing several discussions one-on-one.
“Overall, it was encouraging for political discourse,” Moab resident Abby Scott said. “There were six cops in the building, and everyone was making jokes. No matter who gets elected, I’m very encouraged to get to know all the candidates. Whoever wins will be less divisive than Chaffetz (was).”
Eight contenders present wide range of views at local event
The general election will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 7. To register to vote or to learn more about the elections, see www.vote.utah.gov. More information about each of the candidates and their campaign schedules can be found on their websites, or by contacting the candidates directly:
Dr. Kathie Allen: drkathieforcongress.com; 801-413-7786
Jim Bennett: jimbennettforcongress.com; 801-971-5457
Joe Buchman: joe4liberty.vote; 435-602-0798
Jason Christensen: jasonthepatriot.com; 801-400-1488
John Curtis: johncurtis.org; 435-362-0015
Brendan Phillips: 801-833-5832
Russell Roesler: 801-856-9515
Sean Whalen: seanwhalen.com; 801-836-6188