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OREM — Two candidates for Utah's 3rd Congressional District presented their stances on several issues brought forward by Utah residents, students and election officials in a debate hosted Tuesday by the Utah Debate Commission.
Republican incumbent Jason Chaffetz met for the first time publicly with his heretofore soft-spoken Democratic opponent, Brian Wonnacott, as they discussed the recent Ebola outbreak, White House security, education, gun policy and other weighty topics. The debate was televised live from Utah Valley University.
Few similarities were manifested between Chaffetz, a former businessman now in his third term in Congress, and Wonnacott, a software engineer from Holladay who says he's more comfortable in his fishing hat than a suit.
"I am not a politician. I am a problem solver," Wonnacott said in his opening statement. "I do not consider myself running against Mr. Chaffetz as much as I am running against a do-nothing Congress of which he is a part."
Chaffetz identified his campaign's areas of focus as fiscal discipline, limited government, accountability and a strong national defense.
"You get those right, this country moves in the right direction," he said in his opening remarks.
Chaffetz and Wonnacott reached common ground on aspects of foreign policy, tax reform, economic development, veterans' health care and the affordability of education. Views on the Common Core in Utah's schools, however, sparked divisive dialogue.
"Leave it up to the state of Utah … and I guarantee you they will do a much better job of figuring it out" than federal agencies, Chaffetz said. "There shouldn't even be a federal Department of Education. You don't need Common Core. We can figure this out in Utah. … We don't need a federal bureaucracy to solve these problems for us."
I am not a politician. I am a problem solver. I do not consider myself running against Mr. Chaffetz as much as I am running against a do-nothing Congress of which he is a part.
–Brian Wonnacott, Democratic opponent
"Common Core is not the federal bureaucracy. It is a coalition of governors who have come together to create a common set of requirements that talks about where our students should be," Wonnacott rebutted. "It has nothing to do with the federal government."
Both Chaffetz and Wonnacott agreed that while some teachers may have the right to carry a concealed weapon in schools, parents have an equal right to know if that occurs in their child's classroom.
"I think parents have the right to know everything that's going on in their (child's) school," Wonnacott said. "I also think maybe teachers have the right to carry guns."
"I don't know that a firearm for every teacher is the answer. We've got to find the right balance there," Chaffetz said. "But I do think for some teachers and some schools in some instances it's probably the right solution."
The candidates took different approaches in addressing Ebola and border security. Wonnacott says he sees the two issues as somewhat mutually exclusive, but Chaffetz emphasized the importance of immigration security in preventing the spread of the virus.
"Ebola really is not a border problem. It's a problem of discovering where people are coming from overseas and managing their associations with people they come in contact with," Wonnacott said.
"I do think we're going to have to have more vigorous screening at ports of entry," Chaffetz said. "We need to attack it right at its source. … I do think it is a wise use of federal taxpayer dollars to be able to help those people on the ground who want to help themselves in some of those most affected areas."
A recent security breach at the White House and the subsequent resignation of the director of the Secret Service was also addressed in the debate. Both candidates acknowledged gaps in security protocols for executive leadership.
There shouldn't even be a federal Department of Education. You don't need Common Core. We can figure this out in Utah. … We don't need a federal bureaucracy to solve these problems for us.
–Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Republican incumbent
"I thought the security service, while missing completely the entry of this fellow into the White House, showed a great deal of courage and restraint in taking down this individual," Wonnacott said. "It's clear that there are problems in the Secret Service and that there are moral problems and there are things that do need to be addressed."
"These incursions are totally unacceptable," Chaffetz said. "We have problems with leadership, about protocol, about training and about culture. And for the Secret Service, they're going to have to address those. … They're not above oversight. This is the proper role that the Congress should be doing is providing some oversight."
Kameron Gonzalez, a political science major at UVU, said more local impacts should have been identified in the debate, and that the questions were mostly based on issues that exist beyond Utah's borders.
"I wish they'd tied them in more to the work that can be done here in Utah," he said.
The junior at UVU said he was pleased to see a Democrat running in a Republican-dominated district, but that Wonnacott's political inexperience was apparent.
"It was pretty daring for him to come and do this, but I feel like he probably could have been better prepared," Gonzalez said.
In his closing remarks, Chaffetz identified Wonnacott's apparent discomfort, thanking him for "having the guts to be here."
But Wonnacott said he was "not at all" offended by strikes against his inexperience and quiet demeanor, and that he enjoyed the dialogue with his opponent.
"I was surprised that I really enjoyed it. I'm really shy. I'm not comfortable in front of lights," Wonnacott said. "I am the guy who's around the table who's making sure that people understand the issues on every side and making sure that consensus is reached. And that's something that is really needed in Washington."
Contributing: Rich Piatt