Burgess Owens introduced himself to a national audience Wednesday, told his life story, took a jab at Joe Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and sought to encourage Black Americans to support President Donald Trump.
Owens, the Republican candidate in Utah’s tight 4th Congressional District contest, was among the speakers on the third night of the Republican National Convention, which included heavy themes on race and opportunity in America. The headliner of the night was Vice President Mike Pence.
The Utah Republican’s three-and-one-half-minute speech presented a big opportunity to grow his profile and raise campaign funds as he seeks to replace Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, in one of the most highly watched House contests in the nation.
Owens told the story of his great great grandfather, Silas Burgess, who came to the United States “in the belly of a slave ship” and was sold on an auction block at 8 years old.
“By the grace of God, and the courage of slaves who believed in freedom, Silas escaped through the Underground Railroad and settled in the great state of Texas,” Owens recounted. “He went on to become a successful entrepreneur. He built his community’s first church, first elementary school, and purchased 102 acres of farmland, which he paid off in two years.”
Owens, a former professional football player and a frequent commentator on Fox News, noted he was raised in the South during the era of Jim Crow, when the Ku Klux Klan was a constant threat. But he was taught that “anything is possible in America.”
When he was drafted by the New York Jets, Owens thought “all my dreams had come true.” But 10 years later, after retiring from football, he tried to start a business that failed. Financially ruined, he moved his family into a one-bedroom basement apartment.
He worked as a chimney sweep in the day and a security guard at night. Eventually, he said, his hard work paid off and he began a “rewarding career” at WordPerfect and moved to Utah.
“We live in a country where we’re encouraged to dream big, where second chances are the core of our DNA,” he said. “We don’t hear that same message from Nancy Pelosi’s Congress. Career politicians, elitists and even a former bartender, want us to believe that’s impossible. They want us to believe that what I did, what my great-great grandfather did, is impossible for ordinary Americans. As patriots, we know better.”
Beyond referencing Pelosi, the House speaker, the former bartender Owens was referring to is likely to be Ocasio-Cortez, the House Democrat from New York who has garnered national attention for her liberal viewpoints.
Burgess urged voters, including Democrats and independents, to vote for Trump in November, characterizing the president as the candidate who will “reject the mob mentality” and lawlessness he said is taking place around the country — a reference to social justice protests against police violence that have taken place in cities around the United States.
Trump will also ensure the country can “once again be the America my great-great grandfather believed in,” Owens said.
Under the current administration, Owens said business ownership among Blacks, Latinos and women has reached “all-time highs” and that those same groups have enjoyed record low unemployment and “unprecedented prosperity.” Those comments, which Trump repeatedly echoes, refer to an economy before the pandemic hit.
Owens also also highlighted a recent gaffe by Biden on the campaign trail.
“We have a Democrat candidate for president who says that I’m ‘not Black’ if I don’t vote for him,” Owens noted.
Owens is the founder of Second Chance 4 Youth, a nonprofit aimed at helping troubled kids and has been a strong supporter of Trump’s. He often wears the president’s signature Make America Great Again ball cap.
Trump endorsed him in a tweet shortly after Owens won the Republican nomination, besting three contenders in the June primary election. “A Super Bowl Champion, Burgess knows how to WIN,” Trump wrote. Owens responded: “From a childhood in segregation to being endorsed by the President. It’s an honor to live in a country that has made that possible.”
Owens told Sport Illustrated’s Jets Country on Wednesday that speaking at the Republican convention was “much bigger” than the Super Bowl.
“Now when you’re 30 years old, the Super Bowl is the biggest thing because that’s all you care about,” he said in an interview. “Now I care about my country, our kids, our culture. Now for me to be in a position to be a part of this team — whatever that is — it is the biggest thing I can do now right now. I’m very blessed when I was asked to make this run. I’m a part of a much bigger team in Congress that can turn things around.”
Utah’s 4th Congressional District race between Owens and McAdams is expected to be among the most competitive in the nation. Handicappers at the Cook Political Report say the race between them is a toss up, and recent polling from the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics have indicated it would be a close race.
McAdams won the seat in 2018, besting Republican Rep. Mia Love by fewer than 700 votes.
In a statement Wednesday night, Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant characterized Owens’ speech as a missed opportunity that focused on the wrong issues.
“With a national audience, Mr. Owens missed an opportunity to tell us how he will keep our kids safe in schools, get people back to work and help all of the small businesses seriously struggling in our state,” he said. “Instead, he chose to focus on the internet-based culture wars that have plagued us all over the last four years. I think Mr. Owens needs to spend less time on Twitter listening to theories that divide America and more time in our community learning about ideas that will unite Utah voters.”
Owens has been dogged by controversy leading up to the Republican convention. In the last week, he’s had to fend off questions about his ties to QAnon and critiques that he’d helped promote We Build the Wall, a group that raised millions to purportedly build sections of a border wall between the United States and Mexico and whose members were recently charged federally with fraud.
On Tuesday, Owens came under fire again — this time amid a report from the nonprofit progressive group Media Matters that he had plagiarized sections of his newest book, “Why I Stand: From Freedom to the Killing Fields of Socialism,” from Wikipedia.
Earlier that same day, a former Republican state lawmaker called on the Republican National Committee to strip Owens of his speaking platform at the convention amid questions about his ties to QAnon, a conspiracy group Owens has said he does not believe in.