Gloves come off in GOP gubernatorial debate as rivals blast state’s coronavirus response

20200507 GOP Debate

Well, the gloves came off Thursday during an online debate between the four gubernatorial GOP candidates, with three — and especially two — taking out after Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox for what was called an “irresponsible’’ state reaction to the coronavirus, especially how local businesses have had to close.

“We had a plan from Day 1” on reopening the economy responsibly, said Cox defending against the attacks.

“Yeah, how is that working for you?” countered Greg Hughes, the former Utah House speaker.

Hughes went on to say, “I’m not happy” with how businesses are faring as the Herbert/Cox administration moves from “red” — mostly a lockdown — to “orange,” with a few businesses opening with social distancing required.

It was always a gamble for GOP Gov. Gary Herbert putting Lt. Gov. Cox as the state’s coronavirus point man — who seeks to replace his boss. What if the state’s actions blew up before the electorate? Or could Cox shine in the battle?

And Hughes and Thomas Wright, a former state GOP chairman, went after that plan and, thus, Cox, in the Washington County Republican Women online 90-minute debate.

After both men pounded Cox on the state’s economic recovery plan — with former Gov. Jon Huntsman jumping in at times — Cox’s face reflected those comments — no longer the well-known Cox welcoming smile.

Cox clearly has a political reproach: First, Utah leads the nation in fighting the virus, and in leading the economic comeback. “All Utahns should be proud,” said Cox, saying that criticism of the state’s work is “armchair quarterbacking.” 

But Wright jumped on that. “I’m not an armchair spectator. I’m a player” by having to close down his real estate firm’s 14 offices. “I worry every night” about his employees who are finding it harder to work.

Small Utah businesses are suffering, many that won’t open again, because of an over-aggressive business shutdown, Huntsman, Wright and especially Hughes said.

Herbert and Cox did not have a plan on how to open the economy before shutting it down, claimed Hughes.

Cox disagreed, saying he was surprised some of his opponents were criticizing “the May 1 Trump plan.”

That’s not the Trump plan, said Hughes.

Then he said the state has not been helping business they closed with any help to open. “Civil liberties” were trampled upon by Herbert and Cox, said Hughes and Huntsman.

Huntsman said he is almost a born again Libertarian on how the civil liberties of individuals and businesses were abused by the Herbert/Cox administration.

The Utah Legislature and the administration has “only” allocated $8 million in state funds on the virus’ impact, said Huntsman.

Why not use some of the state’s hundreds of millions of dollars in Rainy Day funds to help open small businesses? Why not work with local banks to provide reopening loans? Asked Huntsman.

But Hughes had the strongest objections to the Herbert/Cox actions. It is tough, said Hughes, that there is an active candidate for governor who must answer for their actions — but that is just the place the virus has placed the GOP governor’s race.

“I was raised in poverty,” said Hughes. “Poverty kills people. If he were governor “we would be back to full work now,” said Hughes — no “red,” “orange,” or “yellow” — straight to “green”. “No more colors, we need to get this economy started right now.”

It may be nice for Cox to talk about how great Utah has done among the states in fighting the virus. “But we are best among the worst” actions, and that just isn’t enough, said Hughes

Hughes specifically criticized the acting head of the Utah Health Department, former Gen. Jefferson Burton, saying Burton objected to how the Washington County Commission has decided to open business there. Hughes picked Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson as his running mate, and said the state should be letting local governments decide these issues.

Addressing Cox, Hughes said you may be proud of how the state is addressing the virus, “I’m not.”

Cox said the criticism of the state’s virus outbreak actions is “just politics” of running a campaign at this time, “trying to tear things down.” But the administration’s actions are working, he said, are reasonable and responsible, balancing public health with the economics of the outbreak.