It was a remarkable scene 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 railed against “whiners, weenies and wimps,” a coward for not showing up.
Owens skipped out on the debate just hours before the scheduled start, citing his objection to Salt Lake Tribune Executive Editor Lauren Gustus serving as moderator of the event.
In a video posted online Wednesday afternoon, Owens said he would not participate in the event because of a “racist” editorial cartoon from Tribune political cartoonist Pat Bagley.
“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 an April 2021 visit to the southern U.S. border, Owens warned of an invasion of migrants coming to the United States.
“They’re coming to your neighborhoods, not knowing the language, not knowing the culture, and there is a cartel influence along the way,” Owens said. “So be aware, don’t think this is a distance from you now, this is coming your way, and it is done on purpose by a party who could care less about we the people.”
Bagley’s cartoon juxtaposed Owens’ anti-immigrant rhetoric with racist rhetoric used by the Ku Klux Klan.
“I will not in good conscience 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.
Following its publication, the entire Utah 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 allegations of racism come up, I’m not going to be the one to interrupt. We wanted to take their concerns seriously. We had a good discussion about it. What it came down to is we’ve never replaced a moderator at the behest of a candidate,” Nielsen said.
Does Nielsen think Owens would have shown had they swapped 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 primary election contest in June.
Owens’ absence did not go unnoticed on Wednesday night. Debate organizers left an empty podium on the stage while his opponents, Democrat Darlene McDonald and United Utah Party nominee January Walker, tore into him for cowardice.
“I hope the constituents of CD4 who watched tonight saw that empty spot and say, ‘we deserve better.’ Not only did he not show up tonight, he will not return phone calls. He will not return emails. He let down his constituents,” McDonald said.
“I think most people here agree that Representative Owens has displayed cowardice. But it’s more than that. For two years, he has been in controlled environments. If you take him out of those scenarios, he does not have the ability to speak coherently. He openly admitted to having CTE or suspected CTE,” Walker said, referencing Owens’ participation in a lawsuit against the NFL where he claimed “repeated blows to the head” led to memory loss and impulse control issues.
Owens did invite McDonald to debate at a pair of town hall meetings later this month on Oct. 22 and 29. While she accepted the invitations, she said she was not confident he would show up to those events either.
“Today was the first day we heard about those dates, and today was the first time he said my name. Do I believe that’s going to happen? I would love for that to happen. I would love to have a conversation with him. I would just like to point out 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 discussed a wide range of issues that covered abortion, racism, inflation, police brutality and the war in Ukraine.
McDonald, who is Black, responded to a question about Owens suggesting the Tribune was racist for comparing him to the Ku Klux Klan, said the congressman was wrong.
“The statements he made in April of 2021 mimicked the statements made by the KKK. He went to the southern border to denigrate people who are looking for a better life. For him to pull out of this debate, citing racism about a statement he himself made, is cowardly,” McDonald said.
Walker suggested technology, specifically blockchain, was the solution to any manner of problems. 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 U.S. should be doing more or less to assist Ukraine against the invasion by 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 correct individuals,” Walker said.
When asked to clarify her statements following the debate, Walker said the U.S. was “not sending the right people” to have conversations with the leaders of Russia and Ukraine prior to the war.
“You don’t think our government officials are going and having conversations with Russia and saying, hey, we would rather you take a different path?” Walker said.
It’s likely Owens won’t suffer as a result of not showing up. Following redistricting, the seat he won by fewer than 3,800 votes has become one of the safest Republican-controlled districts in the nation. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index rates the newly drawn boundaries as R+16, meaning a typical Republican candidate would be expected to perform 16 points better than the national average.
Owens’ refusal to engage with the Debate Commission at all this year raises valid questions about the organization’s legitimacy. If he wins, what’s to prevent other candidates from following suit in the future?
“We can’t force anybody to do anything. We have to rely on cooperative candidates, especially incumbents,” Ed Allen, co-chairman of the commission, said.
“We need candidates being willing to participate; we do not have the power to dictate what they do. The voters can express themselves however they see fit,” Allen said.