SANDY — Even before the start of the only 4th Congressional District debate between Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, and her Democrat challenger, Salt Lake Mayor Ben McAdams, there was new friction between the candidates.
In a statement handed out moments before the hour-long debate at Salt Lake Community College's Sandy campus got underway, Love said an unnamed Federal Election Commission analyst sided with her on a fundraising issue.
That issue, the subject of a formal complaint filed with the FEC by the progressive Alliance for a Better Utah, deals with money raised by Love for a primary election, even though she was nominated months earlier at her party's state convention.
There turned out to be only a mention of the contributions during the debate — sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission and moderated by retired KSL Newsradio host Doug Wright — which included plenty of other tussles on just about every issue raised, including immigration.
What sparked the most contention between the candidates in the state's most competitive race, however, came during an exchange over what Washington, D.C., could do to help local governments.
Love, a former Saratoga Springs mayor, drew laughter when she said she "didn't take developments like Olympia Hills and shove it down people's throats without anyone knowing what was going on" while taking campaign donations from the developers.
McAdams, in his second term as county mayor, vetoed the high-density housing project near Herriman amid concerns. He was applauded when he told the debate audience he did something he never saw Love do: hold a town hall meeting.
"I don't care who's donated to my campaign. If it's the right thing to do, I will follow my constituents every time," McAdams said.
There were a few chuckles when Love responded by saying she'd held 85 town halls and that McAdams wouldn't know that because he does not live in the 4th District, which includes only part of Salt Lake and Utah counties.
On immigration, Love pointed to her efforts against the wishes of House GOP leadership to force a vote on immigration legislation earlier this year and noted her support of a comprehensive bill that failed to pass.
"That's unfortunate. We could have fixed all of these problems," Love said, noting no Democrats backed the bill. She promised to continue to work on the issue because, as the daughter of Haitian immigrants, it's "personal to me."
McAdams said as mayor, "I don't get credit for what I try to do or what I say I want to do. I'm judged based on what I accomplish."
He said he wants to see immigration reform in Congress that protects the nation's borders but also provide "a safe path" for immigrants, including those brought to the United States illegally as children.
Both candidates said they support medical marijuana, but only McAdams said he'll vote for Proposition 2 to legalize it. Lawmakers are expected to be called into special session after the November election to consider a compromise to the initiative.
McAdams said the state is dealing with the issue because Congress has failed to act. Love said she has long supported medical marijuana out of compassion and has introduced a bill to allow the substance to be studied by changing its designation.
Love waited until her closing statement to bring up what she said was an unsolicited call from the FEC analyst, later identified by her staff as the same person who raised the initial questions about her fundraising, Michael Dobi.
She said McAdams was using the issue to come after her with the help of national Democrats and that "this is what we have to deal with here. We have to let people know that honesty still means something and integrity still means something."
McAdams did not talk about his opponent's contributions during the debate, although he expressed frustration at a Congress "where members are too busy attacking each other and not attacking our problems" rather than practicing bipartisanship.
He called Love "a good person," but repeatedly said that "actions and outcomes matter" in Congress.
"My biggest disappointment, Rep. Love, is I feel like you've changed, honestly … you became part of that Washington problem."
After the debate, McAdams said he was "certainly still concerned" about what he described as a violation of the law and that it would not be resolved through a call reported in a press release from the Love campaign.
"Rules matter. She raised money for a primary election when she had no opponent," he told reporters.
Chase Thomas, the executive director of the alliance that filed the federal election complaint against Love, said that the congresswoman's statement "is not an official clearance" from the FEC.62 comments on this story
Love said money raised for the primary election is still being re-designated by her campaign for use in the general election, and any money raised in excess of federal limits is being refunded.
The 4th District race has been rated a toss-up by at least two national ratings entities and polls have shown it's too close to call. The last time a Democrat won a seat in Congress in Utah was in 2012, when then-Rep. Jim Matheson defeated Love.
After Matheson retired, Love came back to win in 2014 and again in 2016, against Doug Owens, the son of the late Utah Democratic congressman Wayne Owens. This is the first congressional bid by McAdams, who served in the state Senate.