SALT LAKE CITY — Citing health reasons, Democrat Jon Harper abruptly withdrew from the race for Utah attorney general Wednesday, the day he and Republican Attorney General Sean Reyes were to have their first debate.
Harper, 63, said in a prepared statement that he made the decision on the advice of his doctor, but he didn't state a specific medical condition.
"My family and a number of friends — old and new — have been incredibly supportive, and I appreciate everything they have done for me," he said.
The former University of Utah law school associate dean said he also hopes he has raised issues in the campaign that will have an impact on Reyes, the incumbent.
Reyes needs to recognize his responsibility to serve as the guardian of the public's interest and not as the attorney for his party and large donors, Harper said. He said he hopes Reyes will shut down the "money mill" the attorney general's office has continued to be and restore openness, independence and integrity to the office as he promised two years ago.
Harper and Reyes were scheduled for a televised debate Wednesday night at Dixie State University in St. George sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission.
The commission let Reyes take questions alone for an hour on a variety of issues, including possibly suing the federal government over public lands, religious liberty and campaign finances. The third-party candidates in the race didn't qualify to participate based on the commission's polling numbers.
Reyes said he was sorry to hear Harper withdrew for medical reasons. He said campaigns can be grueling and wished Harper a speedy recovery and wished his family well.
In response to Harper's comments about the attorney general's office, Reyes said on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show" that Harper "clearly doesn't understand" what's going on.
"We have done everything that I promised, and I feel good about that," said Reyes, who was appointed after John Swallow's resignation amid an alleged pay-for-play scandal in 2013. Reyes won election in 2014.
Reyes said he has taken extra steps to vet campaign donations and has even turned some down. He said he has not accepted any "improper" or "untoward" contributions.
His office has worked for groups that often don't have a voice in the community, including refugees, veterans and people with disabilities, Reyes said. He said he has also fought against "big players," such as the federal government, Volkswagen and the big pharmaceutical industry.
A new UtahPolicy.com poll out Wednesday showed Reyes with a massive lead over Harper, Libertarian Andrew McCullough and Independent American candidate Michael Isbell.
If the election were held today, 61 percent of Utahns would vote for Reyes, 18 percent for Harper, 5 percent for McCullough and 4 percent for Isbell, with 14 percent undecided, according to the Dan Jones & Associates survey.
It's too late for the Utah Democratic Party to replace Harper, but his name will appear on at least the first wave of ballots that go overseas and to military personnel Friday, and possibly all ballots, said Mark Thomas, state elections director.
Thomas said he's not sure if all the ballots have been printed yet, but having two different ballots would cause problems for the scanning machines.
Harper, who has practiced law for 37 years, was a long shot to unseat Reyes.
"Democrats appreciated Jon's willingness to bring a fresh start and independent voice to the attorney general's office," said Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon. "At the end of the day, Jon's health and family should be his first priority. We support his decision and keep his family in our thoughts and prayers."
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