WEST VALLEY CITY With Election Day just around the corner, five candidates for state office spent Saturday afternoon doing what they've been doing for months: talking about education, economic development, health care, immigration and gun control. But this time, they were speaking in Spanish.
About 150 members of the Salt Lake area's Hispanic community gathered at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, 1355 W. 3100 South, to listen to three gubernatorial candidates and two attorney general candidates address issues important to Hispanic Utahns. Though the forum did not include a spot on the agenda for the county mayor's race, Democrat Peter Corroon also made an appearance and spoke briefly.
All six candidates incorporated some Spanish into their remarks. Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff was the most fluent, giving all of his opening remarks and answering most of the questions entirely in Spanish even after organizers told him that some of the audience didn't understand Spanish.
Democrat Scott Matheson Jr. and Republican Jon Huntsman Jr., vying for governor, both praised the state's Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) but said it needs to be expanded so more families are eligible for either it or Medicaid.
"More children could be getting health care from CHIP if we managed the program a different way," Matheson said. Among his suggestions was better use of federal funding, which matches state funding for the program at a rate of 400 percent.
Huntsman said he also suspects the program could be better funded though he left himself some wiggle room, saying he would need to look into its current funding situation to determine whether it's adequate. His guess, however, is that CHIP would be one of the top funding priorities in his administration, especially given estimates for a budget surplus.
Most questions posed to the candidates dealt with immigration. Both Matheson and Huntsman said immigration reforms are needed but that legal immigration should be embraced.
"I don't care what your nation of origin is," Huntsman said. "I don't care how you got here. What I care about is us all banding together and helping Utah grow."
The attorney general candidates also dealt mostly with immigration. Democrat Greg Skordas said immigrants both legal and illegal are often mistreated by law enforcement officials who mean well but need to be better educated on diversity.
He said racial profiling is a problem he would work to stop.
"Police have to rely on their instincts," he said. "They have to rely on what it is that makes them uncomfortable." But too many officers find it is race and ethnicity they are responding to. He said that could be solved with a more racially diversified police force.
Skordas touted his own work in helping to write the state's first hate-crimes law, which he said was gutted and made unenforceable by Republican lawmakers. He said a workable hate-crimes law needs to be passed in Utah within the next year or two.
And Shurtleff spoke at length about his record helping the Hispanic community fight the so-called English-only law that was approved by Utah voters four years ago. Now that it is law, he said, he has found ways to work around it. For example, his office is not allowed to print documents in Spanish, so he has a volunteer who translates documents into Spanish and distributes them.
Major party candidates were not the only ones on hand. Personal Choice Party gubernatorial candidate Ken Larsen was allowed to give a speech, though his time was shorter than that given to other candidates, and he did not field questions.Comment on this story
"The first principle of Americanism is we are all equal," he said. "Not just if you are born in America or speak English or look a certain way. The second principle is that we all have certain rights the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If it is your pursuit of happiness to come to America, you have that right."
He held up a photograph of "my girlfriend, mi amiga" the Statue of Liberty. He read its welcoming message to immigrants from other nations.
"What happened to that?" he said. "What happened to that dream? Why is America closing the door?"He said his approach to immigration would be that "everyone who comes is welcome." Once here, they would not be able to receive welfare for their first five years in the country. The American dream, he said, is "freedom, not free food, not free education, just freedom."