LOGAN, Utah — Shortly before Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met in the first of three televised presidential debates Monday night, the two candidates for Utah governor appeared in their own debate and each made a half-hearted pitch for their party’s candidate.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican who has said he is voting for Trump, said that despite the billionaire candidate’s incendiary remarks, Clinton is unpopular in Utah, even with Democrats, and is seen as untrustworthy.
“It’s one thing to have outlandish behavior,” Herbert said in the debate at Utah State University in Logan. “It’s another thing to be dishonest.”
His Democratic opponent Mike Weinholtz never mentioned Clinton by name but cited some of Trump’s insults to women and minorities and a proposed temporary ban on foreign Muslims coming to the U.S., as very concerning.
When asked afterward why he never mentioned Clinton by name, Weinholtz said “I don’t remember doing that intentionally” and that he thinks everyone knows the name of the Democratic nominee.
Weinholtz is a wealthy former CEO of a medical staffing company who has relied heavily on his own money while making his first run for public office.
He faces a steep challenge to try to unseat Herbert, who has been in office since 2009.
Herbert has a major advantage as the Republican nominee in a conservative state that hasn’t chosen a Democratic governor in three decades.
If he wins, he will have served as governor for about 11 ½ years by the time he would leave office in January 2021, becoming one of the state’s longest serving governors.
During their hour-long debate, Weinholtz used his responses to criticize Herbert’s stance on issues such as federal control of public lands and raising Utah’s $7.25 minimum wage.
Weinholtz supports a raise and said Herbert’s opposition shows he’s out of touch with working people.
“It may be because he spends so much of his time with his fat-cat large corporate donors that he doesn’t have a sense of what is important for everyday families,” he said.
The comment was a reference an audio recording that emerged earlier this year of the governor referring to himself as “Available Jones” when speaking to lobbyists and offering to meet in exchange for campaign donations. The governor later said he was disappointed in himself but that nothing unethical or illegal occurred.
In response Monday night, Herbert did not mention the donors but accused Weinholtz of trying to politicize their argument.
He repeatedly touted Utah’s generally humming economy and low unemployment rate as reasons for his re-election.
Weinholtz also criticized the governor for Utah’s largely GOP-driven push to gain control of federal lands in the state.
Herbert signed a 2012 law that demands the federal government transfer lands to the state and Utah legislators have hired a legal and public relations team to help them gear up for a lawsuit. The case is expected to cost up to $14 million and the Legislature’s own attorneys warned that the lawsuit is unlikely to succeed, something Weinholtz pointed out Monday night, calling it “fiscally irresponsible.”
The governor said Utah needs to take control because the U.S. government has mismanaged the lands, citing overgrown forests ripe for fire. He said a lawsuit is one of several tools Utah may use to try to gain control, along with negotiation and trying to pass a law in Congress transferring some land.
Herbert and Weinholtz’s hour-long matchup Monday aired on local television stations and wrapped up minutes before the presidential debate. It’s unclear whether the timing of Monday’s debate was intentionally set for the same night as the presidential debate, which had been scheduled more than a year earlier. The Utah Debate Commission, which sponsors the debates, did not return messages Monday seeking answers about the timing.