Mitt Romney and Jenny Wilson discussed judicial nominees, immigration, public lands and other issues in a debate at Southern Utah University Oct. 9.
Romney served as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 and was the Republican nominee to the U.S. presidency in 2012. Wilson is a Democrat and a member of the Salt Lake County Council. The two are running for the seat in the United States Senate currently held by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who will be retiring at the end of his seventh term this year.
“We can do the ‘Mitt Jenny’ thing, if you’re OK with that,” Wilson joked after Romney commented on how long the two had known each other. Romney and Wilson both worked on the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
“We have different governing philosophies,” Romney said. “I’m a conservative. I’m a Republican. I believe that we should have smaller government and lower taxes.”
Romney voiced concerns about excessive government spending and said he believes many government programs should be eliminated or moved to the state level.
“In the final analysis, I think Utah knows better how to run Utah than Washington does,” he said.
Wilson described herself as a problem-solver who could work across the aisle to find fresh approaches to problems.
“I think to change Washington, we’re going to need a new generation of leaders — leaders who are from their communities, who know the people, who have worked to solve local problems,” she said. “We need to break up the old boys club known as the U.S. Senate.”
Wilson and Romney voiced a need for bipartisanship and civility but clashed on the particulars within multiple policy areas.
“I guess we’re going to play multiple-choice Mitt,” Wilson said of Romney’s position on gun control.
Wilson quoted a news release from Romney’s office during his time as governor of Massachusetts that described assault weapons as “instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people.”
She said she supported an assault weapons ban and agreed with the statement she attributed to Romney.
Romney said the news release reflected a compromise local pro- and anti-gun lobbies agreed to at the time. Assault weapons were banned, he said, but hunting was allowed in places where it had not been allowed previously.
“That’s the way I like to see things happen,” he said. “I like Republicans and Democrats to work together.”
Medicare, entitlement reform
Wilson said she is willing to approach a bipartisan compromise on entitlement reform and taxes for the rich, saying she “would be willing to go to the table.”
“But not on the backs of our seniors and people in need,” she emphasized.
Romney said Medicare reform is needed to keep the program financially viable and changes to the program should be steadily phased in.
“For current seniors: no change,” he said. “You can’t change the deal when people are getting close to retirement. But for young people that are looking to these programs, they need to be told that the programs are going to change.”
He insisted these reforms be bipartisan. “This is something that can be done with Republicans and Democrats; there’s got to be the effort to reach across the aisle.”
Justice Kavanaugh, the judicial confirmation process
Romney said both parties could be blamed for the controversy over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He said the process was a mess and proposed nominees be investigated early in the confirmation process to the satisfaction of both major parties.
He also said he believes there should be a deadline for complaints against a nominee so sufficient time to investigate those complaints is guaranteed. He said hearings on sensitive matters should not be public.
Wilson called the process heartbreaking and unbelievable. She said the investigation before Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation was rushed and the rules that dictated the confirmation process were in need of reform.
Wilson said a group of senators should review FBI background checks and should speak to witnesses of alleged wrongdoings in private hearings early in the nomination process.
She also said a new generation of leadership in the Senate is needed to join with existing reformers to ensure complications to future nominations are handled with greater respect and understanding.
Immigration, family separation
Wilson also said greater respect is needed in immigration reform. She said America needs a “comprehensive, compassionate and family-centered” approach to the issue. She called for an end to family separation, saying it is not a Utah solution.
Romney also harshly criticized family separation.
“This is a heartbreak. This is a dark chapter in American History,” he said. “This is inexcusable and can’t go on.”
Romney said children who came to the United States as children and who were protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program shouldn’t be threatened with deportation, in light of a promise made by the Obama administration. However, he said he did not support a special pathway to citizenship for these people, and they should “get in line with everybody else.”
Wilson disagreed, saying they shouldn’t be forced to wait in line since they did not come to the United States of their own volition. She said she supports a special path to citizenship for these people, and in the meantime they deserve full legal protection from Congress.
Wilson and Romney also disagreed on the issue of impeaching President Trump.
Wilson said if Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s upcoming report contained impeachable offenses then of course she would support Trump’s impeachment. She also criticized Trump for his failure to trust his own staff, for his divisive rhetoric and for turning a recent diplomatic summit with North Korea “into a photo op.”
“We see a lot of smoke around the president right now,” she said. “I don’t have a crystal ball.”
Wilson said she hopes the Republican Party will nominate someone other than Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
“This is not the steady hand we have seen in previous presidents,” she said. “Of both parties.”
According to the Senate’s definition of impeachment, impeachment is for sitting public officials.
“I don’t think it makes sense to be talking about impeachment, not for a sitting president,” Romney said.
Romney said he supports some aspects of the Trump presidency and opposes others.
He said he supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade agreement which Trump opposes. He also expressed opposition to the president’s “divisive” rhetoric.
“There are times when I think the president has said things that are racist and misogynistic,” Romney said. “I will speak out about those things.”
But, Romney said, Trump “is doing a lot of things that are very helpful for our state.” He said he supports the Republican tax plan and Trump’s deregulation efforts.
Romney expressed mixed feelings about Trump’s tariffs. He said he thinks they hurt businesses and employees in Utah but have also been helpful in motivating China and other countries to renegotiate better trade deals with the United States.
Wilson and Romney also differed on the affordable housing crisis.
Wilson said an explosion of growth in Utah caused both incredible opportunities and great challenges. She said she wants to address these challenges with harmonized federal, state and local government.
“We know that if we don’t fight for housing stability, we don’t build more, we don’t find local and state solutions, we’re not going to get anywhere,” she said.
Romney disagreed, arguing the federal government was too deep in debt to lower housing prices.
According to Romney, the federal government spent one trillion dollars more last year than it took in.
“Every man, woman and child in Utah — their share of that debt is $65,000 a person,” he said.
Romney said he prefers housing problems to be tackled on the state level so less of America’s debt will be passed to future generations.
Wilson said this was “multiple-choice Mitt again,” citing his requests for extra federal spending to be earmarked for Massachusetts when he was governor there.
Increased gas taxes to fund education
Wilson and Romney were asked their opinions on whether taxes on gasoline should be increased to help fund education.
Romney said he was reluctant to state a position on the issue because he wanted to allow Utah voters to make their own decisions.
“But let me tell you this,” he said. “The key to improving the quality of education is how much you pay starting teachers.”
Romney also said gas taxes are “particularly punitive” for people in rural Utah who have to drive long distances regularly.
Wilson said she agreed with his concern, and she was reticent to support an increased gas tax for this reason.
“Citizens need to send a signal to the legislature that it’s time that we do more for education,” she said. “I’m not sure, in the end, the gas tax is the best mechanism.”
Wilson called for more education funding. She said teachers often pay for their own supplies and occasionally don’t even have air conditioning in their classrooms.
Water usage, conservation
“We’re at a really, really tough point right now,” Wilson said about water conservation. She said federal assistance to build strong water infrastructure has been critical to Utah’s growth historically, but now there is “not enough water to go around.”
“I think conservationists can come together with developers and we can find these solutions,” Wilson said.
Utah is often in conflict with other states over water, Wilson said. She also called for the establishment of a coalition of senators from western states to address water issues.
“Really, really key in all of this is our own personal responsibility to limit our consumption,” she said. “Without that, we’re not going to go anywhere.”
Romney said Utah has a right to take more water from the Colorado River than it currently does, according to a prior agreement the state made with its neighbors. He said he is in favor of building a water pipeline from the Colorado River to Southern Utah to sustain more growth since unused portions of Utah’s water go to California otherwise.
He said the agricultural industry in Utah is doing a good job at decreasing its water consumption, but home usage is still too high and too much of that water is spent watering lawns.
Healthcare, pre-existing conditions
“I hope Republicans and Democrats can come together and say loud and clear that everybody in America has access to good healthcare,” Romney said.
Romney said he would not vote for any legislation which would endanger healthcare coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. He called this a “bedrock principle” and said the approach to guarantee healthcare coverage for these people was best determined by the states.
Romney also said he believes an upcoming Republican healthcare bill would actualize this approach.
Wilson agreed pre-existing conditions required protection.
“I will fight for good healthcare coverage as your senator,” she said. “I will have your back.”
She said the Affordable Care Act was flawed, but she does not support repealing it because she does not want to deprive people of the safety net it provides until more comprehensive healthcare reform is achieved.
Wilson said America’s greatest national security threats are North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran. She also criticized the lack of diplomacy in international affairs, which she said needs to be balanced with military power.
“Right now we need diplomacy,” she said. “We’re missing that with this president.”
Romney agreed with Wilson’s concerns about Iran and North Korea, “but longer-term the real challenge comes from China and from Russia.” Romney characterized the authoritarian states as rising economic and military threats.
“Both of them are investing enormously in their nuclear capacities as well as their conventional military capacities and space capacities,” Romney said. He also called for a renewed commitment to American defense.
Election Day will be Nov. 6. Voter registration and polling places are available at vote.utah.gov.