James Singer and Tim Zeidner have a lot in common. Both served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Argentina. Both hold doctorate degrees. And now, both are running for Congress against Republican incumbent John Curtis in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District.
Singer, a Democrat, and Zeidner, a member of the United Utah Party, met at Provo City Library Oct. 2 for a public forum hosted by Mormon Women for Ethical Government (MWEG). Rep. Curtis was invited but was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict.
According to Catherine Eslinger, the co-lead of MWEG’s Utah chapter, the purpose of the event was to increase voter registration and voter education.
“We want women to feel able to vote, to make a decision that (they) can feel good about,” Eslinger said.
Eslinger, who helped organize the candidate forum, said women at BYU who are looking to become more civically involved should consider joining MWEG.
MWEG is a private organization and is not officially affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “We do, however,” the group’s website reads, “sustain and honor the church’s doctrines and leaders.”
Candidates answered questions on varied issues, including immigration, the environment and public lands, among others. Emily de Schweinitz Taylor, who volunteers as a member of MWEG’s executive committee and as a mediator at BYU’s Center for Conflict Resolution, asked the questions.
The exchange was not a debate, Taylor said. “There is a spirit of camaraderie here.”
Eric Chase, a recent UVU graduate who attended the event, agreed.
“We need politicians focused on problem-solving and working together more than ever now,” he said.
Chase, a member of the United Utah Party, is running for office himself. He said he decided to run for State House in District 61 after he discovered the Republican incumbent, Marsha Judkins, was running unopposed.
“Voters are excited that someone’s actually coming into their neighborhoods, that they have a choice,” Chase said. “They’re excited that someone cares about issues that affect them.”
Chase said he regrets how incumbents in the state House, state Senate, school board and city council often run unopposed. He said he wished people knew more about what was going on locally.
“Civic engagement is low,” he said.
Ziedner and Singer discussed different issues at the event, including political philosophy, immigration, housing and gun control, among others.
Ziedner described his general governing philosophy as practical and pragmatic.
“I’m not a politician,” he said. “Not that that’s a bad thing; I’m just not a politician.” He said he wasn’t interested in running initially, but said when his party asked him to run, he “felt impressed” to do so.
Ziedner said he is passionate government reform and supports term limits.
“Long-term politicians seem to exacerbate the problem of money and influence,” he said, adding that elections for local offices like school board and sheriff should not be partisan.
Ziedner said he favors ranked-choice voting and that congressional districts ought to have better boundaries. This kind of government reform “helps people have their voice heard,” he said.
The United Utah Party was founded in 2016 by a group of former Republicans and Democrats who were frustrated by increasing partisan extremism. According to its website, the United Utah Party focuses on “moderation rather than extremism and pragmatism and problem-solving rather than ideology.”
“Party holds such sway over decisions of representatives,” Zeidner said. “There has to be a real alternative.”
Zeidner said he has a philosophical difference with Singer. Zeidner said the best way to reach a pragmatic, centrist solution was to advocate for a solution directly. He said Singer might instead try to reach solutions by starting farther from the center.
Singer agreed with this distinction. He called for a “strong values-based system” which he said he believes is better for voters and more productive for society.
Singer said he is passionate about ethical government and that it is common for politicians to justify means to get the ends they want. “I’m vehemently opposed to that kind of thing,” he said.
Singer also said he rejects the centralization of corporate and political power.
“You need to be humane and still lean on security,” Zeidner said, addressing the issue of immigration. He called the prospect of a border wall a “placebo.” Instead, he proposed partnering with Mexico and other countries to address the underlying causes which motivate people to migrate in the first place. He said he supported both an increase in quotas and strong vetting.
Singer said the best approach to the issue of illegal immigration would address the problem’s underlying causes. “What are the ideological value systems behind the policy in place?” he asked. He said current immigration policies are immoral and are based on fear and race.
Moreover, Singer said current trade policies might exacerbate illegal immigration. Shipping some agricultural products into Latin American countries might decrease demand for labor there, he said, which might in turn increase the likelihood unemployed people will attempt to come to the United States illegally.
On the issue of public lands, Zeidner said the reality of the situation is “most of our lands are multi-use.” He said he advocated an approach focused on doing a better job including varied stakeholders in the conversation. He said the process of determining public land use is better held on local and state levels than on a national level. Still, Zeidner warned, stakeholders are so varied “no one is going to get everything they want.”
Singer called public lands “the last vestiges of the commons in our society.” He said modern society has a skewed perspective on what it means for land to be public and shared. Singer said some groups of people have been kept out of the conversation. He cited the limited involvement of indigenous people in decisions relating to Bears Ears National Monument as an example.
Singer, a Navajo and a Latter-day Saint, called Bears Ears a “place of creation.”
“What part of Jackson County, Missouri, would you like to set aside to dig up for coal and oil?” he asked. “That’s how I feel about Bears Ears.”
Zeidner said environmental issues need to be addressed with the use of incentives to motivate responsible behavior. He said people do not think about the true cost of environmental problems, citing health expenses as an example.
Singer said it is not part of human nature to think about the future, and said this problem permeates environmental issues. He cited urban sprawl as an example.
“We’ve become car-centric,” he said. “You can’t walk anywhere. You have to drive.” To alleviate this issue, Singer said he would support improved public transportation in Utah.
Housing shortages, income inequality
According to Zeidner, some of the causes of affordable housing shortages and income inequality stem from student debt. Zeidner said he is concerned student loan debt prevents young people from starting families and might be a sign of a coming recession.
Singer described income inequality as the result of neoliberal capitalism and supply-side economics. The poor are now closer to the middle class than the middle class are to the rich, he said.
Singer said that as a Latter-day Saint he prefers households be able to have a parent stay at home. He said he is concerned falling wages make this impossible for many families. America needs a more robust middle class, he said.
To deal with affordable housing shortages, Singer suggested rent be lowered through housing subsidies funded through public and private sectors.
The two candidates agreed there is a need for gun reform. Ziedner said he wasn’t sure what form a solution would take and that it is difficult to balance the needs of citizens’ rights to bear arms and their rights to be free from bodily harm.
“We need to do a better job at preventing suicide and domestic violence,” he said. Ziedner explained he thinks some people shouldn’t have guns and others should do a better job at keeping their firearms secure.
Singer said he sees the Second Amendment as a cultural issue in Utah.
“Utah has a gun culture,” he said. Singer explained he isn’t opposed to the recreational use of firearms, but is uneasy with semi-automatic guns and assault rifles which are “designed to kill people as effectively as possible.” Singer also said he thinks background checks should have a role to play in gun purchases.
There is a need to “think about what masculinity means for our society today,” Singer said. He said parts of Utah’s gun culture reflect this. Men should call out chest-beating and other destructive behaviors, Singer said.