2nd District Debate Marked by Moderator Mishaps

Did you watch the 2nd District Congressional debate Thursday night?

I wonder how many Utahns did, considering the second half of it was opposite a NFL Thursday Night Football broadcast between the New York Giants and Washington Redskins – on one of the national TV network affiliates here in Utah.

Anyway, I watched it. I get paid for such things.

And I can report, dear reader, that U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and state Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, each did OK.

They were polite to each other. They seemed to know – or at least have intelligent opinions – on the issues and questions asked.

Nothing terrible or even strange happened.

Oh, there were flubs. A number of them.

But they came from the moderator – former local TV person Barbara Smith, picked by the Utah Debate Commission to moderate this debate.

While the two major party candidates did fine, Smith didn’t.

The worst mishap occurred when she asked each candidate to ask the other one a question.

Stewart had to go first, and he seemed a bit stumped. Then he asked Robles, who got married earlier this year (her fiancée proposed on the state Senate floor, and Robles cried and it was really rather sweet), who told the audience that she is pregnant (and certainly looked it), whether she knew if it was a boy or a girl.

“A girl,” Robles smiled.

Then it was Robles turn to ask Stewart a question. And she asked Stewart if he believed if there was a role for the federal government to play in America, or even if there should be a federal government.

Here was a chance for Stewart to say something dumb, like “no, we really don’t need a federal government.”

But just as he started to answer Smith cut him off, turned camera right and started a prepared speech about how important the debates were and such.

This was clearly a prepared break at the half-hour point. But it was really stupid – I mean – you told each candidate to ask the other a question and then you interrupt and don’t let one answer.

At the end of her interruption/debate explanation, Smith got lost on the script. Asked “Whose on first?” And then asked the control room which question she was supposed to ask next. They told her question No. 6, and she asked that one from her list.

Smith also said that Common Core were federal education standards. They are not; Robles politely corrected her to say they are educational standards created by the National Governors Association and education professionals.

Smith asked about what to do with federal lands in Utah, and whether national parks should be turned over to the state.

Stewart politely noted that no one is talking about turning over national parks to the state, and if they were, he would oppose that.

Look, I could never be a debate moderator on live TV.

But this did not go smoothly.

One wonders what would have happened if Robles or Stewart, or both, decided to really lay into each other, interrupt each other and generally act like aggressive candidates.

Fortunately, they aren’t those kind of people; both very nice and considerate.

In fact, when Smith several times asked Stewart if he had a response to what Robles had just said, he said he agreed with her. And vice versa.

If this debate was supposed to draw bright political lines between the two, it didn’t.

I’ve watched Robles for the six years she’s been a senator representing Salt Lake City’s Westside.

And I must say I’ve never seen her more poised, calm and professional as Thursday night.

Stewart was also well versed on the issues. However, he’s so bland as to be, well, a mild-mannered, middle-aged, Republican Mormon man — which he is.

He talked about his religion, he talked about being raised with nine brothers and sisters on a farm, about his mom being a schoolteacher, his dad teaching the children the value of hard work. He talked about. . . . well, you get the picture.

Robles said she came to America 18 years ago to make a better life for herself and her children. (Yes, Utah, she did it legally.)

With a slight Hispanic accent in her English, she said she is now a vice president at Zions Bank working to develop and help small businesses, noting that some of her clients were in the audience. (I noticed only one person of color when the cameras panned the audience. With Robles, that made two in the auditorium. But this did take place in Cedar City – the heartland of Utah).

I’ll mention several differences in the pair’s answers:

— Robles said she is for “equality” in marriage, as it speaks to how America treats all of its citizens.

— Stewart said his religion teaches him marriage is between a man and a woman, and how could anyone expect him to go against not only that, but the “thousands of years” of history in which marriage was one man and one woman. (OK, forget early Mormon history and hundreds of years in parts of the world where one man married a lot of women at the same time.)

“We are all children of the same God,” said Stewart. “And we should all be treated with dignity.” And each state should decide for itself whether gay marriage should be allowed or not, he said.

— Robles said several times that Congress is “incompetent,” “not doing its job,” and maybe shouldn’t get paid until members “get their act together.”

There were almost some applause at several of these statements, but the clapping seemed to just peter out – kind of like the debate itself.

— Asked by Smith what should be done with the broken illegal immigration system, Stewart said it was an easy answer (rarely have I heard that the fix for illegal immigration is an “easy answer”).

“Secure the border,” said Stewart. Then follow the Republican House’s idea of passing a serious of laws that piecemeal fix the problem. “These are simple fixes,” he said.

If President Barack Obama goes ahead and tries to “fix” immigration on his own, without Congress, it will “shatter the trust between Congress and the president, there will be no (immigration) reform,” said Stewart.

Really. Shatter the trust. I didn’t know there was any trust.

Robles said Republicans are just using the immigration issue to “bring fear” into many areas of our society.

The 11 million illegals now in America are made up of hardworking families with children. There should be a pathway to citizenship – not amnesty as many are calling it – but a pathway.

“As long as we are stuck on this words, we are not talking about a real solution,” she said.

— The huge national debt is really Obama’s fault, said Stewart.

Stewart said that all we really have to do is grow our economy to, over time, get out of it.

While bemoaning the current economic recovery, Stewart also noted that with the meager gains we’ve seen recently, this year’s projected federal deficit has gone from $850 billion to $550 billion with no tax hikes – just because the economy is growing.

— Robles said the Utah Legislature passes a yearly balanced budget; but Congress can’t seem to pass any budget.

— When Robles said there should be “fairness” in the natural distribution of wealth – by taxing some industries but not taxing others the same way, Stewart saw an opening.

He said that is the problem with some (Democrats?), that there should be no distribution of wealth by the government.

Rather free market practices should decide who survives economically and who fails. Don’t “rob Peter to pay Paul, but create opportunities for both; not take and give.”

“We need fairness in taxation,” said Robles. When she heard that some (Republican?) congressmen wanted to do away with government sponsored student loans, “I was petrified.”

Both candidates and Smith challenged Utahns to vote this year.

Unfortunately, this 2nd District debate didn’t light a fire under anyone.

At some point all of the Utah Debate Commission broadcasts will be available on its web site: www.utahdebatecommission.org.

You can also check out the debates at KUED Channel 7.

On the Debate Commission web site you can submit questions for future debates and see a debate schedule.