Attorney General Debate Shows Flashes but Fizzles

It took 35 minutes for someone to ask a question about John Swallow during Wednesday night’s Utah Attorney General Debate.

Once again the restrictive format imposed by the Utah Debate Commission on moderators and candidates squelched what promised to be a lively debate between Republican Sean Reyes and Democrat Charles Stormont. Limiting candidates to 90 or even 30 seconds to answer fairly substantive questions simply did not allow for any in-depth exploration of topics.

One quirk introduced by the Debate Commission for this event had four local broadcast journalists backing up BYU political science professor David Magelby, who served as moderator.

In the 35th minute, it was Fox 13’s Max Roth who finally brought up John Swallow. Roth pointed out to each candidate how much money they have pulled in through donations during the campaign, and asked how beholden the men would be to their donors.

Reyes was clearly rattled by the question, especially after Roth demonstrated he pulled in more than $280,000 from less than 100 donors. Reyes fumbled verbally for a few seconds to find his footing. He finally righted himself pointing out he has a team on his campaign that scrutinizes donations, and he has already turned down a number of them.

Stormont has pulled in a little more than $80,000 from about 400 donors. Roth asked him if the paltry sum compared to Reyes’ total demonstrated a lack of effectiveness by his campaign.

“The number of donors to my campaign demonstrates a buy-in from the public,” said Stormont.

The two men showed a flash of animosity when discussing Utah’s appeal of the ruling striking down same-sex marriage in the state. Reyes thinks the state is justified appealing the case while Stormont thinks Utah will eventually lose, and the money being spent is better utilized elsewhere in the office.

“Everyone wants a clear and final answer on the question of same-sex marriage,” said Reyes. “It’s my duty to defend those laws. My opponent and (U.S. Attorney General) Eric Holder want to pick and choose which ones to defend, but you can’t cut and run on this issue.”

Stormont countered that the job of the AG is to act as a legal advisor for the state. “We need to give good, honest legal advice to the people in Utah. We haven’t had this for a long time.”

Reyes delivered a good, hard verbal body check to Stormont on the issue. “If my opponent would take off his political glasses and use his lawyer lenses, he would see that trying to exercise a veto on litigation is a dangerous precedent.”

“When we choose to throw money at hot-button issues, knowing we are going to lose, we choose to ignore children in abusive situations,” countered the Democrat.

That exchange promised to be the start of some long-awaited political fireworks, but it fizzled out quickly as the format demanded a quick transition to a discussion about pay and bonuses in the A.G.’s office.

That short 4 minute exchange laid bare the weaknesses and failings of the format used by the Debate Commission. 90-seconds to answer, with a mere 30-seconds for follow-up or rebuttal is simply not adequate, and not what the viewers and candidates deserved. No further discussion on same-sex marriage, no mention at all of the effort to wrest control of public lands from the federal government. Seemingly organizers decided to sacrifice depth in favor of getting as many questions in from Utahns and the assembled media panel, consciously choosing quantity over quality.

The final quarter hour did focus on the scandal that drove John Swallow from office last year with questions about campaign finance reform and what motivated the alleged legal transgressions by the former Attorneys General Swallow and Shurtleff.

There was one final snarky exchange between the two men, where Stormont accused Reyes of imposing a “gag order” on staffers in the A.G.’s office to keep them from talking to the press. “The only gagging is from the lawyers in my office when my opponent uses that term,” quipped Reyes.

Then, the hour was over.

Utah is not known for open political warfare. Most sniping between rivals is usually done behind their back or in a roundabout way. That’s why Wednesday’s exchanges between Reyes and Stormont were so unusual. As political fireworks go, their closest equivalent is probably a sparkler – hardly the skybursts many observers were hoping for.