Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The candidates for Utah’s 2nd District congressional seat used their first debate to emphasize the differences in their experience.
Republican Chris Stewart and Democrat Jay Seegmiller taped the debate Thursday for broadcast on KSL’s “Sunday Edition,” scheduled to air at 9 a.m. Sunday.
They are vying for the seat now held by Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, who is running in the state’s new 4th District.
Seegmiller said he’s the only candidate in the race with legislative experience. He upset former Utah House Speaker Greg Curtis, a Republican, in 2008 and served a single term in the Legislature.
He said he is running for Congress because he’s “a little frustrated with the flavor of politics these days,” citing his own experience reaching across the aisle as a lawmaker.
“Our country is going through some very difficult times right now and we need to be able to work together to pull ourselves out of this,” rather than pulling apart, Seegmiller said.
The railroad conductor said voters have a choice between “a working-class Utahn” who has the experience and a proposal to create jobs “or someone who is a Washington, D.C. consultant.”
Stewart, president and CEO of the Shipley Group, disagreed with that characterization but said he, too, sees the need for members of Congress to be able to work together.
“But it’s working together doing the right thing,” Stewart said. Any compromise should be based on principles of what he called economic and fiscal sanity. “It’s the principles that are going to save us,” he said.
His ownership of a small business, time in the military and writing career all have helped prepare him for Congress, Stewart said.
“It’s a critical time in our nation’s history,” he said, describing the election as whether or not voters still believe in American exceptionalism, a topic of his books.
The pair agreed on a number of issues, including their opposition to both gay marriage and to abortion except in cases of rape, incest or health of the mother.
Both were critical of President Barack Obama’s health care plan, but Seegmiller said that “train has left the station” even if it’s going down the wrong track. Stewart said while there are some parts of the plan he supports, other areas need to be changed.
Seegmiller called for more tax fairness to help boost revenues for public education, such as limiting the number of personal exemptions a family can take on their income taxes. Stewart said decisions about schools belong at the local level.
Stewart said his controversial nomination at the GOP State Convention in April — the subject of a pending complaint before the Federal Elections Commission — has not been much of a topic on the campaign trail.
Comparing the complaint to “a fifth-grade Dick Tracy novel,” Stewart said it came from opponents who didn’t like losing and were looking for someone to blame.
“It’s absurd on its face,” he said of the accusation that he and a sham candidate in the race secretly sought to have several of his Republican opponents portrayed as conspiring against him.
He said he had no problem looking voters in the eye and promising, “We had nothing to do with the shenanigans there.”
Seegmiller was asked whether he sees himself as an independent in the mold of Matheson, who has served 12 years in Congress despite the GOP’s dominance.
“I think like Matheson. I am very independent and I will be bringing Utah’s values to Washington, D.C.,” Seegmiller said. “I understand that Utah voters want someone who will be independent and who will do the right thing when it’s time.”
The 2nd District now incorporates much of the western portion of the state including part of Salt Lake County. For the past decade, it had included much of eastern Utah, but lawmakers changed the boundaries during last year's redistricting process.
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