SALT LAKE CITY – Frontrunner Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox got beaten up again in the final debate of the race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination on June 16.
Cox was previously assailed over the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during a forum sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission in early June. At a similar event sponsored by KUTV-2 News, the lieutenant governor was pummeled by his rivals over the state’s handling of a May 30 riot in downtown Salt Lake City.
Former Utah House speaker Greg Hughes was most vocal in his response to questions about the civil disturbance, calling the incident “four hours of unabated, uninterrupted violence.”
The events of May 30 began with peaceful demonstrations by Black Lives Matter supporters. That protest was sparked by the death of George Floyd, an African-American who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. Video footage of Floyd’s death led to nationwide outrage and violence in numerous cities.
As the day wore on, however, some protesters turned to violence. In the midst of the disturbance that followed, a police car was burned, the state Capitol was vandalized, windows were broken at numerous locations and police in riot gear were pelted with rocks, bricks and water bottles.
The Salt Lake riot was eventually quelled with the help of police reinforcements from communities along the Wasatch Front and 200 members of the Utah National Guard.
“It could have been stopped early on,” Hughes argued. “It got out of hand, so (state authorities) had to call law enforcement from multiple jurisdictions, had to call and deploy the National Guard.”
Given that violence had already occurred in other cities in the wake of Floyd’s death, Hughes said that the National Guard should have been called out in advance, suggesting that an early show of force might have deterred the street violence.
But Cox countered that he was proud of the restraint shown by Utah authorities, saying their delay in responding to the demonstrations “protected the peaceful right of protesters to get their message out.” He also commended the conduct of police and National Guard personnel for dealing with “very difficult circumstances” when they were finally deployed.
When his turn came to discuss the Salt Lake disturbance, former governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr. criticized the state for even activating, much less deploying, National Guard troops.
Huntsman argued that his experience as U.S. ambassador to China and Russia taught him that using the military to enforce civil law is proof that the government has failed in its basic task to carry on a meaningful dialogue with all its citizens.
“We are a civil society,” he emphasized. “That’s how we operate. We don’t send in the heavy artillery …”
The fourth candidate in the race, former state GOP chair Thomas Wright, found himself in the unusual position of agreeing with Hughes that Gov. Gary Herbert was “a little late” in activating the National Guard during the Salt Lake riot.
Given the previous violence in other cities, Wright said that Herbert should have been able to anticipate the May 30 demonstrations in Salt Lake City had the potential to turn violent.
While acknowledging the right of any group to protest, Wright said that the Salt Lake demonstrators overstepped the bounds of legitimate protest when they turned to arson, vandalism and destruction of personal property.
“I do believe in law and order in that case,” Wright said. “We had to take action.”
The winner of the GOP gubernatorial nomination in primary balloting on June 30 will face Democratic candidate Chris Peterson of Salt Lake City in the November general election.