SALT LAKE CITY – President Donald Trump was “the elephant in the room” during a June 2 debate between candidates for the GOP nomination to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop in Congress. But only Mayor Katie Witt of Kaysville seemed to welcome the chief executive’s looming presence.
Witt is vying with former state agriculture commissioner Kerry Gibson of Ogden, businessman Blake David Moore of Salt Lake City and Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson of Layton for the Republican nod in Utah’s 1st Congressional District.
During the forum hosted by the Utah Debate Commission, all four candidates deplored the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, but were split on the issue of an appropriate response to violence and property destruction during recent riots across the country.
Witt said that she supported Trump’s tough talk on the urban unrest, including his threats to send federal troops to quell riots and to declare “Antifa” to be domestic terrorists.
“Antifa” is a loose collection of leftist activists who bill themselves as Anti-Fascists. Many conservatives blame the shadowy group for inciting violence during recent protests.
“When it comes to ‘Antifa,’ if state governments are not taking care of that problem,” Witt said, “I support President Trump in taking a stance. I believe they are a terrorist organization and they should be dealt with as such.”
But Gibson and Moore flatly denounced the idea of federal military intervention in U.S. cities.
“Not in my America,” Gibson said. “We don’t need the military of the United States of America in Salt Lake City, Utah.”
“Our response to (civil unrest) is best done at the local level where we know exactly what’s going on,” Moore agreed.
In a more nuanced response, Stevenson said that use of the National Guard is usually sufficient when local law enforcement requires back-up in an emergency.
Witt evoked Trump several times during the debate, especially to compare her mindset to that of the President on the issue of economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is time to reopen America,” Witt said, echoing numerous statements by Trump. “We have to let people earn a living … It was a mistake in retrospect to force everybody to close down … We see that in the angst and the stress that our nation has gone through over the past several months.”
The candidates were largely in agreement on conservative issues including reducing federal spending, upholding constitutional freedoms and countering China’s growing threat to U.S. national security.
But Witt differed sharply with her rivals on the need for cooperation with congressional Democrats.
“Politics is about getting everybody swimming in the same direction … ” Witt argued. “I’ll work with anybody who wants to preserve freedom, expand opportunity and re-ignite patriotism … But when it comes to an issue of principle, I will not be moved.”
Republican voters will select their candidate in the 1st Congressional District race during primary balloting on June 30.