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Utah Congressman-elect Burgess Owens hits the talk show circuit to discuss race, diversity in the GOP

(Courtesy of the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee via AP) In this image from video, congressional candidate and former NFL player Burgess Owens speaks from Washington, during the third night of the Republican National Convention on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.

Rep.-elect Burgess Owens, who ran a Trump-style campaign for Utah’s 4th Congressional District that focused often on his identity as a Black conservative, will enter office next year as part of the most diverse Republican freshman class in history.

All the House Democrats who lost their races this year were unseated “by either a Republican woman, a minority, or a veteran,” Erin Perrine, the communications director for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, said during an appearance with Owens on “The Sean Hannity Show” last week.

“Or,” she added with a nod to Owens, “a veteran of the Super Bowl as well.”

While the Republican Party — and Congress as a whole — has largely been dominated by white men, around half of its incoming freshman class will be women or minorities next year, Al-Jazeera has reported.

Owens, who beat one-term incumbent Rep. Ben McAdams in a close race for the seat, will be one of two Black Republicans in the House next year. And he is the second Black Republican Utah has sent to Congress.

After winning the 4th District seat back for his party previous Monday, when McAdams conceded, Owens hit the conservative talk show circuit, where he spoke of the demographic shifts in the Republican Party, what he called an “all-star” freshman class and how he plans to navigate questions of identity on Capitol Hill.

During his conversation with Hannity, Owens said the GOP’s future “is going to be great for our country” and added that the newcomer class is “going to be remarkable.”

“Just get ready for a remarkable, powerful, patriotic class coming aboard,” he said.

Owens, a former NFL player, is no stranger to the national stage. But Baodong Liu, a University of Utah professor who studies race and politics, said the Republican now “has a much bigger megaphone in his hand” and expects to see him catapult to a higher profile than most freshman politicians enjoy.

“The fact that Burgess Owens can regain this district for the Republican Party means so much for the Republican Party,” said Liu, who noted that the party has tried “very hard to appeal to nonwhite voter groups in the country” and was not as successful in the 2018 midterms.

“While the Democrats still have the majority in the House, this year has been a surprise win for the Republican Party, especially when you talk about diversity,” he said. “Mr. Owens represents at least a breakthrough for the Republican Party to reclaim that the party can still appeal to minorities and African Americans in particular.”

Taking the national stage

In an interview on Newsmax TV this week, former White House press secretary turned talk show host Sean Spicer praised Owens as “a great example of what the party stands for” and for bringing “the diversity to the Republican Party that it so needs.”

He asked Owens if he planned to be involved with the Congressional Black Caucus, a group made up of African American lawmakers that is currently made up entirely of Democrats.

Spicer also wanted to know how the newly elected congressman planned to balance “representing Utah and wanting to grow the party and show so many Americans that successful people like you are proud Republicans.”

“I will have nothing to do with the Black Caucus,” Owens responded. “It has nothing to do with color; it has to do with our values. I see an organization that’s been pro-abortion, anti-choice for school, not doing anything to make sure our kids get educated or get job opportunities. They have been our biggest problem.”

(Former Utah Rep. Mia Love, who lost her seat to McAdams in 2018, similarly criticized the Black Congressional Caucus in 2012, telling the Deseret News that its members “sit there and ignite emotions and ignite racism when there isn’t.” She ultimately joined the caucus in 2015.)

In responding to Spicer’s wider question about race, Owens harked back to his youth in the South in a “remarkable community in Tallahassee in the ’60s.”

“What turned us upside down was not white supremacists; it was Black elitists,” he said. “People who come up from our community, live the American dream, and tell the rest of us we can’t do it.”

In Congress, Owens said he plans on working with anyone — regardless of race or background — “that has the same endgame I have, which is to make sure our country moves forward and that our kids have the greatest opportunity to live the American dream.”

”Believe it or not,” he added, “that is not found in the socialist and Marxist ideology.”

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Burgess Owens, Republican candidate in Utah's 4th Congressional District, speaks with people during an Utah Republican election night party Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Sandy, Utah.

Owens talked often during the campaign about how his life was shaped by forces of race.

He was born in Columbus, Ohio, where his father had moved to obtain a graduate degree he couldn’t get in Texas because of Jim Crow laws at the time. The family later moved to Tallahassee, Fla., where his father was a college professor.

Owens eventually sought a degree in biology at the University of Miami, where he was only the third Black student to earn a scholarship. He played football there before he was drafted by the New York Jets during the 1973 NFL draft and went on to play 10 seasons, one of which culminated in a Super Bowl win with the Oakland Raiders.

He also regularly told the story of his great-great-grandfather, Silas Burgess, who Owens said during his Republican National Convention speech this summer came to the United States “in the belly of a slave ship” and was sold on an auction block at 8 years old but went on to become a successful entrepreneur.

Although the Republican talked frequently about race on the campaign trail and on Twitter, minority outreach didn’t appear to be a strong focus of his electoral strategy, which Liu said was “primarily appealing to white voters and Trump voters.”

Owens’ message on race largely disregarded the notion that Black people or other minorities in modern America face discrimination or any special challenges because of the color of their skin. Instead, he emphasized values of self-reliance and the power of the American dream.

A strong work ethic and conservative policies, he has said, are more effective than government handouts that he maintains haven’t helped people who look like him — and that’s one of the reasons Owens has thrown his wholehearted support behind both the Republican Party and Trump.

“I happen to be drawn to a party that believes in freedom No. 1 and believes that each and every one of us can succeed if we pay the price to do so,” Owens told The Salt Lake Tribune after his primary win this summer.

“We’re finding right now, more and more Black Americans leaving the Democrat plantation, literally,” he added. “I’ve never seen anything like it because of President Trump, because the success he’s given the Black community, the lowest unemployment in [the] history of our country, for Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women, veterans.”

GOP appeal to minorities

After years of grappling within the Republican Party over its failure to appeal to minority voters over the past few decades, the president did see an increase this year in his percentage of the Black vote, as well as an expansion in the number of Latinos who voted for him — though it ultimately wasn’t enough to win him reelection.

Trump won around 12% of the Black vote in 2020, according to preliminary exit polling conducted by Edison Research that shows about a 4 percentage point gain on his 2016 numbers. The president also gained 3 percentage points among Latinos and 5 percentage points with Asian Americans, according to data from the research organization that was reported by The New York Times.

But while the presidential race was “not good news for the Republican Party,” Liu noted that “House races all across the country have been a huge success because they reverse the blue wave.”

In that context, and within conversations about the need for the Republican Party to appeal to new demographics, he said, Owens “can serve this historical role to make Black conservatism once again a national topic.”

As the Republican prepares to take office early next year, Matthew Burbank, a political scientist at the University of Utah, said he’ll be interested to see how the politician navigates not only his identity but also his place in Congress under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, considering that he’d run a campaign aligning himself so closely with the current president.

“The thing that drew him into, ‘That’s what I want to do, that’s what I want to represent, I want to go there and support the president,’ now he’s going to go there, but he’s not going to have the president to support,” Burbank said. “I think the real question is how does he respond to that?”

At the same time that Owens reflects shifts in the demographics of the freshman class, Burbank also sees him as a “microcosm” of a broader trend in the election at large — as support for Biden failed to translate into wins for Democrats down the ballot.

“No, Donald Trump did not win the presidency, but Republicans did very well and here’s an example,” he said. “I wouldn’t describe Burgess Owens as a great candidate, but he did run a strong campaign. He raised lots of resources, he got his message out there. And for Republicans in this election, that worked. He was able to pull that off.”

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