Attorney General candidates spar over ethics, school vouchers at campus debate

By David Servatius, Staff Writer

The major party contenders for Utah attorney general sparred over school vouchers, crime, ethics and civil liberties in a feisty debate sponsored by the Hinckley Institute of Politics on Tuesday.

Republican incumbent Mark Shurtleff spent the majority of his time defending his record from the past eight years. Democratic challenger Jean Welch Hill, who is trailing badly in recent polls, spent the majority of her time picking that record apart.

“We need a very different ethical framework,” Hill said.

Shurtleff touted his experience, leadership and vision. He spoke about his willingness to disappoint his own political base on issues like hate crimes legislation, which he supports, and a controversial state constitutional amendment outlawing same sex marriage, which he opposes.

“I’ve had to stand up and take the political hit and do what’s right,” he said.

Hill, an attorney for the Utah State Board of Education, said her central focus in office would be education, the economy and ethics. She went after Shurtleff, accusing him of ethical lapses and poor judgment.

“My opponent has taken tens of thousands of dollars from predatory lenders and has opposed regulation on predatory lenders,” she said.

Hill said Shurtleff should take a more active role in counseling lawmakers about potential legal problems with legislation before it passes, citing recent attempts by the Utah State Legislature to pass what she called overly restrictive abortion laws that are certain to be shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Our law is as conservative as it can be under Supreme Court precedent right now,” she said. “The attorney general’s job is to ensure that we are not wasting state resources on litigation that we are likely to lose.”

Shurtleff said those types of comments demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the attorney general.

“I sometimes wonder if she’s running for the Legislature or if she ought to be,” he said.

Some of the sharpest exchanges between the two candidates came during a discussion of the state’s school voucher proposal, which was defeated resoundingly in a public referendum last fall.

Hill accused Shurtleff of providing legal and moral support to pro-voucher groups.

“We need someone who is going to promote public education, protect public education and not seek to dismantle it,” Hill said.

Shurtleff said he never took a public position on vouchers.

Both candidates agreed that local police agencies have no role to play in federal immigration enforcement as required by a new state law set to go into effect this July. They also agreed that same sex couples should be allowed to adopt children, something currently forbidden under Utah law.

“Equal protection under the law needs to include everybody,” Hill said. “We continue to get bogged down in discussions of who we are going to protect.”

The audience for the debate filled the Hinckley Institute caucus room and spilled out into the hallway. Freshman business student Kent Johnson said that he came to watch because he’s always been interested in politics.

He said he came away more impressed with Shurtleff, but still wanted to hear more before making a decision.

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Mark Shurtleff

Jean Welch Hill