Sparks Fly During Attorney General Primary Debate

Jun 3, 2020

Credit Utah Debate Commission

In the coming weeks Utahns will begin receiving their vote-by-mail ballots for the primary election. While most of the attention is focused on the gubernatorial race, the Attorney General’s race is heating up. Candidates traded barbs in Tuesday’s Republican primary debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Right from the start, the debate was contentious. Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, who is challenging incumbent Sean Reyes, first laid out his top policy priority, criminal justice reform. Then, he went in for a jab.

“Attorney General Sean Reyes has done nothing to reform the criminal justice system. He believes in the lock ‘em up mentality that destroying all of us. I will say, punishment yes, retribution, no. It’s about redemption,” said Leavitt.

Reyes, the state’s current Attorney General, fired back.  

“Certainly, criminal justice reform is an important issue. But, it’s not the most important issue. And anybody who tells you that is not qualified to be the Attorney General,” said Reyes.  

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah pointed out that both candidates are life-long Republicans and on paper you might expect them to have similar positions.

“And yet, they really showed kind of very different approaches to questions about how you should run the attorney general’s office. And what the role of the attorney general is,” said Burbank.

The candidates differed on how to address the violent clashes between protestors and police. But, one of the most heated moments came when Leavitt accused Reyes of being under the thumb of his donors.  

“We have seen over and over again that the Attorney General not just this Attorney General, but for the last 20 years, the attorneys general have put a for sale sign on the office of the Attorney General,” said Leavitt.  

Reyes dismissed the allegation.

“There hasn’t actually been an allegation that any decision that I’ve made in my office to investigate or not to investigate. To prosecute or not to prosecute has been influenced by any campaign,” said Reyes.

The latest poll from Utahpolicy.com/KUTV from May 20 shows Reyes ahead 63% to 37%. Burbank said that it’s unlikely Leavitt will be able to close the gap.  

“In a state like Utah, which is heavily Republican. Being the incumbent Republican officeholder is a big advantage,” said Burbank.