Burgess Owens’ opponents are attacking him for pulling out of the 4th Congressional District debate

It was a remarkable scene on Wednesday night. Two women stood on the debate stage at the University of Utah and called Rep. Burgess Owens, the former NFL player who has spoken out against “whiners, whiners and sissies,” what a coward not to show up.

Owens dropped out of the debate hours before its scheduled start, citing his objection to Salt Lake Tribune Executive Editor Lauren Gustus, who served as moderator for the event.

In a video posted online Wednesday afternoon, Owens said he would not attend the event because of a “racist” editorial cartoon by political cartoonist Pat Bagley of the Tribune.

“Last year The Salt Lake Tribune published a racist cartoon depicting me as a member of the KKK, the very same hate group that terrorized my family and my race as a youth in the South,” Owens said.

During a visit to the southern US border in April 2021, Owens warned of an invasion of migrants coming to the United States.

“They come to your neighborhoods, don’t know the language, don’t know the culture, and there’s a cartel influence along the way,” Owens said. “So pay attention, don’t think this is a distance from you now, this is coming your way and it’s done on purpose by a party that could care less about us the people.”

Bagley’s cartoon juxtaposed Owens’ anti-immigrant rhetoric with racist rhetoric used by the Ku Klux Klan.

Sounds familiar | Pat Bagley

“In good conscience, I will not have anything to do with the racist Salt Lake Tribune and will therefore not participate in this debate. I expect bias from such a liberal outlet, but racism is where I draw the line,” Owens said.

After its publication, Utah’s entire congressional delegation issued a joint statement condemning the cartoon.

Debate Commission Executive Director Erik Nielsen said Owens’ campaign objected to Gustus as moderator shortly after she was announced last month.

“When there are accusations of racism, I am not the one to interrupt. We wanted to take their concerns seriously. We had a good discussion about it. It came down to the fact that we have never replaced a moderator at the request of a candidate,” said Nielsen.

Does Nielsen think Owens would have shown if they had switched moderators?

“I can’t answer that question. I would like to think he would have shown up,” Nielsen said.

Wednesday’s announcement kept Owens’ streak of skipping out on debates during the 2022 election cycle intact. He refused to debate Republican Jake Hunsaker before their June primary contest.

Owens’ absence did not go unnoticed Wednesday night. Debate organizers left an empty podium on stage while his opponents, Democrat Darlene McDonald and United Utah Party nominee January Walker, ripped him for cowardice.

“I hope the voters of CD4 who watched tonight saw that empty seat and said, ‘we deserve better.’ Not only did he not show up tonight, he won’t return phone calls. He won’t return emails. He failed his constituents,” McDonald said.

(Xiangyao “Axe” Tang | Pool) Darlene McDonald answers a question during a 4th Congressional District debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022.

“I think most people here would agree that Representative Owens has shown cowardice. But it’s more than that. For two years, he’s been in controlled environments. If you take him out of those scenarios, he doesn’t have the ability to speak coherently. He openly admitted to having CTE or suspected CTE,” Walker said, referring to Owens’ participation in a lawsuit against the NFL in which he claimed “repeated blows to the head” led to memory loss and impulse control problems.

Owens invited McDonald to debate at a pair of town hall meetings later this month on Oct. 22 and 29. While accepting the invitations, she said she wasn’t sure he would show up to those events either.

“Today was the first day we heard about these dates and today was the first time he said my name. Do I believe it’s going to happen? I would love for it to happen. I would love to go a talk with him. I just want to point out that we were invited to a candidate forum in August and he canceled at the last minute,” McDonald said.

With Owens’ absence, Wednesday’s debate was almost an afterthought. Undeterred, McDonald and Walker debated a wide range of issues covering abortion, racism, inflation, police brutality and the war in Ukraine.

Responding to a question about Owens suggesting the Tribune was racist for comparing him to the Ku Klux Klan, McDonald, who is black, said the congressman was wrong.

“The statements he made in April 2021 mimicked the statements of the KKK. He went to the southern border to demean people who are looking for a better life. To withdraw from this debate and cite racism about a statement he himself made put forward, is cowardly, McDonald said.

Walker suggested technology, specifically blockchain, was the solution to any kind of problem. She said the technology, most prominently used in cryptocurrency, could solve police brutality by counting the number of bullets police use in a year and then extrapolating that data to find patterns. She also said it could be used to save the Great Salt Lake by implementing it to track water usage.

Walker showed she was out of her depth when asked if the US should do more or less to help Ukraine against the invasion of Russia.

“When we talk about the Ukraine war, it comes down to a lack of communication, and it comes down to not talking to the right people,” Walker said.

Asked to clarify his statements after the debate, Walker said the United States “didn’t send the right people” to have talks with the leaders of Russia and Ukraine before the war.

“You don’t think our government officials go and have talks with Russia and say, hey, we’d rather you go the other way?” Walker said.

It’s likely that Owens doesn’t suffer because he doesn’t show up. After redistricting, the seat he won by fewer than 3,800 votes has become one of the safest Republican-held districts in the country. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index rates the newly drawn boundaries as R+16, meaning a typical Republican candidate is expected to perform 16 points better than the national average.

Owens’ refusal to even engage with the Debate Commission this year raises valid questions about the organization’s legitimacy. If he wins, what’s to stop other candidates from following suit in the future?

“We can’t force anybody to do anything. We have to rely on cooperative candidates, especially the incumbents,” said Ed Allen, co-chairman of the commission.

“We need candidates to be willing to participate; we do not have the power to dictate what they do. Voters can express themselves as they see fit,” Allen said.

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