1 of 3
Chris Caldwell, The Spectrum
2nd Congressional District candidates Shireen Ghorbani, left, and U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart shake hands at their debate Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, at Dixie State University in St. George.

ST. GEORGE — Democrat Shireen Ghorbani suggested that the "person in our White House" is the biggest threat to the nation's security during a rowdy 2nd Congressional District debate Monday filled with a host of cheers and jeers.

Though she didn't mention President Donald Trump by name, Ghorbani said she is concerned about "our overall ability to lead this nation with a level-headed and stable president" in a way that makes all Americans proud.

Republican Rep. Chris Stewart countered, "First I'd like to say, I can assure you, President Trump is not the greatest threat to our national security," causing a stir among the more vocal Ghorbani crowd.

Chris Caldwell, The Spectrum
2nd Congressional District candidates Shireen Ghorbani, left, and U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart participate in a debate Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, at Dixie State University in St. George.

Stewart called China the biggest threat to the United States.

More than 480 people crammed into the Eccles Fine Arts Center at Dixie State University for the hourlong televised debate, which was marred by a man grabbing Stewart's microphone during his closing statement.

"Vaccines cause autism. Autism is caused by vaccines," the man said before two police officers escorted him out of the auditorium.

The Utah Debate Commission, which sponsored the event, issue a statement afterward, saying safety is its No. 1 priority at its venues.

"Unfortunately, one person crossed the line, was escorted out and arrested by law enforcement authorities that were present," according to the statement.

Blair Barfuss, chief of campus police at Dixie State University, confirmed that Curtis McMillen of Citrus Heights, California, was booked for investigation of disrupting an official meeting and disorderly conduct.

The commission said it would review and enhance security at future debates while continuing to encourage participation in the electoral process.

Earlier this month, a man did the same thing while U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney was speaking at the Washington County Republican Women's fundraising dinner in St. George.

Stewart said after the debate he thought the man came to the stage to adjust his mic.

"I didn't know what to think," the congressman said of the interruption.

A first-time candidate, Ghorbani held her own against the three-term congressman in her first political debate.

"This is a wild experience," she said.

Although each candidate was alloted the same number of tickets, the Ghorbani supporters reacted loudly to some of Stewart's answers, prompting moderator Doug Wilks, editor of the Deseret News, to ask them to keep it down. Stewart at one point thanked his supporters for "obeying the rules" and not cheering or booing.

In addition to national security, exchanges between the two candidates on health care, the national debt, the Lake Powell Pipeline and Utah's medical marijuana initiative brought out their differences.

Ghorbani said she's worried that Trump "ripped up" the Iran deal, that the Taliban is "stronger than ever before," and that diplomacy is not a priority.

"I'm concerned that we're living in a current climate where our president is not welcome in London," she said.

Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that he and National Security Adviser John Bolton agree that despite aggression on several fronts, the greatest threat to the country is "absolutely China."

"In the long term, it is the thing that our children are going to have to deal with," he said, adding China is aiming to be "the dominant force in the world."

Asked by the moderator if she supports Trump as president, Ghorbani said "kind of tough, right?" She said she supports whoever is in the office and wants them to do their best work, but that she's "troubled" by Trump's conduct, his tweets and the way he treats women.

"I want him to do well. I want him to wake up everyday and work to fight for you," Ghorbani said.

Stewart complimented Ghorbani on her answer, saying "I think she said it just right." He said he wants the president to succeed, but some of the things he tweets are "indefensible."

"Ms. Ghorbani, would you like to rebut the compliment?" Wilks asked, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Ghorbani replied that she believes Trump exposes small things that people disagree on and tries to exacerbate division.

Ghorbani said the Republican tax cuts are part of the reason for the nation's escalating federal deficit, now at $21.5 trillion. She said everything needs to be on the table to get the debt under control, though not entitlements. She said she is concerned about spending billions of dollars on wars "I see no end to."

Stewart, who said he decided to run in 2012 because of the deficit, said he would continue to vote against bills that don't adequately address the issue. He said job growth would cover the deficit increase from the tax cuts.

"We both care about the debt. That's good news. The problem is that many of your Democratic colleagues don't because they won't work with us in serious ways to attack the debt. You can't fix this without looking at Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare," he said.

Ghorbani said entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid are earned benefits that people paid into their entire working lives.

"To say that we're going to cut those, or force people to work into their 70s, I mean, what's the limit on this? It is an unacceptable vision of the future for me when there are many other places where we could be looking to address our spending," she said.

A University of Utah communications professional, Ghorbani said she got into the race after watching her mother die from pancreatic cancer two years ago. Access to affordable health care has come up frequently as she campaigns in the district, she said.

"I'm standing here because I don't see any viable solutions from you or your party," she told the congressman.

Stewart said the Affordable Care Act was built on deceit. The Republican plan doesn't deny anyone coverage, provides more funding for women's health, keeps children on their parents' policy until age 26, controls cost and allows coverage to bought across state lines to create competition.

"That sounds like Obamacare," Ghorbani replied, eliciting applause from her supporters.

The Lake Powell Pipeline is a big issue in rapidly growing Washington County. Ghorbani said she concerned about the cost to residents and that it's not clear how much they would have to pay. Other options should be explored before moving forward, she said.

Stewart said he "absolutely" supports the project, largely because the community "overwhelmingly" favors it. He said the federal government or "people in Salt Lake" shouldn't tell residents in other areas what they should do about the project.

19 comments on this story

"If we don't do this, this community will die," he said. "If we don't claim that water in Lake Powell, California will."

On Utah's ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana, Proposition 2, Stewart said it's a state issue so what he thinks shouldn't matter. He said he supports medicinal marijuana, but the proposition isn't "thorough or well-thought through."

Ghorbani said she Utahns deserve to vote on the issue because the Legislature did not come to the table with solutions. She said there are problems with the way the initiative is written, but that she supports it.