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Election news from across Utah's statewide and national races in 2020.

VP Candidates Sharply Disagree During Debate At The University of Utah

A photo of an entrance to the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate at the University of Utah.
University of Utah
The vice presidential debate was held on the University of Utah campus, and signs emblazoned with the debate’s red, white and blue logo were scattered throughout President’s Circle.

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris sparred over a range of domestic and international topics Wednesday night at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

The event was scaled down due to health concerns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. Just a handful of guests and journalists sat in the debate hall, and the two candidates were separated by 12 feet and plexiglass shields.

Among the many topics, Harris and Pence went head-to-head over climate change and its impact on wildfires. Nearly 295,000 acres have burned in Utah during the 2020 fire season, and scientists have said that climate changehas played a role in larger fires in the American West.

Pence said that President Donald Trump is listening to scientific consensus on climate change, but that “with regard to wildfires, President Trump and I believe that forest management has to be front and center.”

Forestry and fire experts have said, though, that many factors contribute to wildfires.

Harris fired back by pointing out that President Trump said during a recent trip to California that “I don’t think science knows” what is happening with regards to the state’s wildfires.

Pence criticized Harris and Biden on their climate change policy, pointing out that the campaign website said “the Green New Deal is a crucial framework.” While that is true, CNN fact-checkers reported that Biden’s climate change policy differs in several ways.

“It makes no sense. It will cost jobs,” Pence said. “President Trump is going to put America first, he’s going to put jobs first and we're going to take care of our environment.”

Pence also claimed that Biden would ban fracking. But Harris pushed back, and said that Biden would not. The New York Times reported that while Biden’s plan would ban new fracking leases on public land, it would not shut down existing public land leases or ban any fracking on private land.

“We're going to invest in renewable energy,” Harris said. “It’s going to be about the creation of millions of jobs. We will achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, carbon neutral by 2035.”

The evening ended with a question from Brecklynn Brown, an eighth-grader from Springville Junior High in Springville, Utah. Brown expressed a sentiment seen in many people’s response to the presidential debate last week and to tonight’s vice presidential debate.

“When I watch the news, all I see is citizen fighting against citizen. When I watch the news, all I see are two candidates from opposing parties trying to tear each other down,” Brown lamented. “If our leaders can’t get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?”

Pence responded by saying that the division shown on television news is not representative of “the American people.”

“In America, we believe in a free and open exchange of debate … But when the debate is over, we come together as Americans,” the vice president said. “We’re gonna work every day to have a government as good as our people.”

Harris said that the division in the United States is what propelled Biden to run for president, and that he will work to heal those divisions.

“Joe has a long-standing reputation of working across the aisle,” Harris said. “And that’s what he’s going to do as President. Joe Biden has a history of lifting people up and fighting for their dignity.”

Utah Political Response

Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert attended the debate, and said while he was disappointed that the event had to be scaled back because of the pandemic, he was excited that people got to see what Utah has to offer.

“We've done so many good things right over the last decade and so it's nice to have some recognition of that fact,” Herbert said. “I think we'll have some residual benefit from this, actually, going forward in the future. I talked to a number of people, who said, ‘Hey, I'm moving to Utah.’ So they’ve been here a couple of days and they’ve liked the people and liked what they've seen.”

Utah Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, attended as guests of Harris. Romero said she hopes the debate empowers Utahns to get involved in politics.

“[The debate] shows that Salt Lake City — there is a stereotype that we're deep red,” Romero said. “But I see the changes coming before us. And so I think this energizes the people who feel like their voice doesn't matter. And I hope to see them step up this election cycle and to show that maybe we're a little more purple than we are red.”

The Biden/Harris campaign said Harris chose Hollins and Romero as guests because they “represent the people she and Joe Biden will fight for in a Biden-Harris Administration, and they both showcase the resolve hard-working Americans have shown as Donald Trump has failed to control the virus and save the economy.”

Opposing Protests

Several hundred protestors gathered outside the secure debate perimeter before and during the event.

About half were waving Armenian flags and signs in support of the country in the midst of escalating violence there with Azerbaijan, or supporters of Biden and Harris. The other half were Trump supporters carrying campaign flags and signs, along with signs objecting to abortion and socialism.

Brandon Andreski joined the gathering about three hours before the debate started. He supports President Trump and said he was hoping to speak with others there to better understand their political views.

“It’s mostly been pretty peaceful,” Andreski said. “I met some people who weren’t so open to discussion, wanted to argue. But my personal belief is I don’t have to agree with you to love you. If I did, then marriage wouldn’t exist.”

A few hundred people gathered outside of the secure debate perimeter near Kingsbury Hall. Police came in to separate opposing sides, but the demonstration was largely peaceful.
Jon Reed
A few hundred people gathered outside of the secure debate perimeter near Kingsbury Hall. Police came in to separate opposing sides, but the demonstration was largely peaceful.

As the night progressed, University of Utah police in riot gear moved in to separate the two sides, which also included a number of Black Lives Matter supporters. University police reported they made one arrest, a man charged with disturbing the peace. Despite a few outbursts and clashes between the various groups, the gathering was largely calm.

Jon Reed contributed to this reporting.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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