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Democrat For Governor Chris Peterson On COVID-19 Response, Suicide Prevention And Police Reform

A man with glasses in a suit with a blue tie stands smiling at a podium.
Trent Nelson
Salt Lake Tribune
Chris Peterson speaks during his Sept. 29 gubernatorial debate with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

Utah has the first open seat for governor this year since 2004, and in the lead up to the November election, KUER is bringing voters conversations with both major party candidates.

Politics reporter Sonja Hutson spoke with Democrat Chris Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah about his vision for the state.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Sonja Hutson: Why are you the best candidate to lead Utah?

Chris Peterson: I think it's time for change. Right now we are facing a terrible coronavirus crisis that's threatening our public health and safety and also depressing our economy across the state. I believe we need new leadership that's going to get after this virus and get it controlled and get our folks back to work.

Also, it's time for a bit of balance in our state. We had three different ballot initiatives that passed in [2018] on Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana and also fair legislative redistricting, only to see the state legislature and the administration repeal and replace or water down all three of those ballot measures. I'm going to advocate for the public and listen to ordinary voters across the state. I want to make a difference for working people in their daily lives.

SH: You mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic and the state's response. What would you have done differently? And if elected, what do you plan to do differently once in office?

CP: Months ago, I called for a statewide mask mandate with reasonable exceptions. Nobody's suggesting that if you're out alone in the middle of a field, you have to wear a mask. But we do need to have masks on because when we don't wear them, we put others at risk: our neighbors, our friends and seniors. There's no place in the state that isn't potentially vulnerable. We've had some of the highest rates in downtown Salt Lake City. We've had them in more suburban areas like Utah County and some of the worst effects have been down in San Juan County, very rural, near the Navajo reservation.

Second, we need to decrease the processing times of Coronavirus tests to no more than 24 hours. People need to know if they're safe to go back to work right away because their livelihoods are depending on it.

Third, we've got to double or even triple the number of contact tracers that are working in the community to identify who may have been infected by the disease and get them the treatment they need, get quarantined and get tested to make sure we know who's got it and who doesn't.

Finally, seven months into this pandemic, we still can't get widespread availability of N-95 respirator masks. Instead, we've wasted a bunch of time and money on things like cell phone software that doesn't actually work. We've had a big conversation about a drug that hasno demonstrable benefits, according to the scientists. Let's listen to our public health experts and focus on things we know will work.

SH: I want to move on to talking about something that is pretty somber. Utah had the fifth highest suicide rate in the country from 2016 to 2018. And it is the leading cause of death for Utahns aged 10 to 17. How would you address that issue as governor?

CP: I think back to my own life, my own childhood. I had a very dear friend of mine who died by suicide when he was young and it cast a pall over the early years of my life. And his family is still in my heart. My heart goes out to people who may be listening to this that are suffering right now. I want you to know that I care about you and I'm hoping that you'll hang in there and things can get better and you can get help.

Some things that I think that the state government needs to do a better job on that: first off, I would encourage and use the authorities of the office of governor to make sure that we're compensating psychologists and psychiatrists that are engaged in evidence based mental health care the same way that we do internists.

Second, I want to make sure that we continue to have as broad of access to health care as possible. I'm very disappointed that right now the executive branch and my opponent in this election is supporting a lawsuit attempting to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which would decrease our access to mental health care for people who may be suffering from this dangerous disease.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.

SH: And lastly, what, if any, police reforms at the state level do you support?

CP: I want to try to find a future where we can have some police reform that gets buy in from community activists. We've talked with the police officers union, advocates from the Black Lives Matter community. Our law enforcement officers need mental health resources, too, including anger management and grief counseling to make sure that they've got the resources they need to be able to approach their job with an open heart, bright eyes and the willingness to protect and serve all people with equal justice under the law.

We need to make sure that all the different departments have adequate conflict de-escalation policies. We can do a bit more training at the state level on that issue. I also support implicit bias training.

We also need to make sure that if there are police officers who are engaging in violence inappropriately on an ongoing basis or are intentional racists — that's unacceptable in our society. We need to keep track of them and they need to find a different profession. And we need community involvement in prosecutorial decisions to make sure that the community's interests are being represented.

One thing I will mention, last of all: I do not support defunding the police. And frankly, I've met virtually no Democratic politicians in the state of Utah that actually do. Sometimes that's held out there as though we support that, and it's just not so.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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