TAYLORSVILLE — While Mia Love prepared to take center stage at the Republican National Convention in Florida on Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson ripped her proposal to eliminate federal student loan programs.
"What she won't say in that speech is anything about her plan to pull the rug out from under more than 75 percent of Utah's college students," he said.
Matheson was referring to a deficit reduction plan Love floated before the state GOP convention in April that included ending student loans, grants and work study programs, which according to her would save $33.1 billion.
"This is a dangerous and reckless proposal that would hurt Utahns and damage Utah's economy," Matheson told a small gathering at Salt Lake Community College. "Does she not know what it will do to Utah families, or does she just not care?"
The six-term congressman held two political events Tuesday where he pointed out differences between himself and his 4th Congressional District opponent. In the morning at Memory Grove, he thanked local, state and federal firefighters for their efforts in battling the more than 1,000 wildfires in the state so far this year.
Matheson said he puts Utah before party.
"I share a lot of the frustration people have about the bickering and polarization in Washington," he said. "We don't need to send someone back there who votes the party line. We need voices of reason who want to actually get things done."
Matheson deemed the timing of the Salt Lake Community College news conference as coincidental to Love's nationally televised speech. He said it's time the campaigns focus on issues, and with school starting, it's appropriate to talk about college education.
Also Tuesday, a super PAC started running a negative TV ad against Love. The House Majority PAC, which works to elect Democrats to Congress, attacks Love's record as mayor of Saratoga Springs.
The 30-second spot is likely the first of many that will take aim at both candidates in the next two months.
At SLCC, Matheson used U.S. Department of Education statistics showing 181,005 federal college loan recipients and 111,034 Pell grant recipients in Utah in the 2010-11 school year to go after Love.
"If you wipe that out, most of those folks aren't going to be able to go for post-secondary education," he said. "Is that really what we want for our future, telling kids you don't get to go to college?"
Matheson said a struggling economy, lower home prices and rising tuition costs combine to create a steep hurdle for many qualified college applicants, and federal aid helps them clear that hurdle.
Love campaign spokesman Brian Somers said Love understands firsthand the need for a college education. But the answer to spiraling tuition costs is not increased taxpayer subsidies and student loan debt, he said.
"The solution is to lower the hurdle or to reduce the costs associated with getting a degree," Somers said in a statement, adding that means promoting policies that encourage the use of technology, online instruction and increased competition among post-secondary institutions in order to bring costs down.
"The solution is not more government and individual debt, which seems to be Matheson's preferred fix to nearly any problem we face," he said.
Kalyn Ebner, a University of Utah senior majoring in sociology and criminology, has relied on federal aid for three years and said she wouldn't be in school without it.
"I would be working a dead-end job," said Ebner, who serves as the U. student association's director of student advocacy.
Chris Bowcutt, ITT Technical Institute college director, said Gov. Gary Herbert's goal for 66 percent of Utahns to have a some type of post-secondary credential by 2020 won't be achievable without federal financial assistance.
"It is critical to have this access to education," Bowcutt said. "These students rely on student loans, Pell grants, student aid to get this access."
Matheson called his being in Utah and Love in Florida a "nice contrast" between the candidates.
"I'm here with Utah firefighters and talking to Utah students today. I'm more about Utah. You know me. I'm not too big on either political party," said Matheson, who has never attended the Democratic National Convention and said he won't again this year.
U. political science professor Tim Chambless said it's a tough call as to whether Matheson's or Love's approach to campaigning Tuesday plays better with 4th District voters.
Love's convention speech draws significant national attention to Utah, even though it's not in prime time in the state and lasts only three minutes, he said. But it shows Utah is becoming more diverse, and that's a positive message, Chambless said.
On the other hand, he said, Matheson is on the ground meeting with potential voters.
"Both resonate," Chambless said.