Republican Rep. Burgess Owens and Democratic challenger Darlene McDonald shared a heated discussion Friday evening tackling critical race theory, abortion and elections at a debate facilitated by their campaigns.
It was the first and only time the candidates would debate while vying to represent Utah’s 4th Congressional District. It’s also the first time freshman congressman Owens has shared the debate stage with a political rival since 2020, when he debated former Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams.
Owens didn’t show up to two debates this spring prior to the Republican primary election — one hosted by the Utah Debate Commission and another held by the Utah Republican Party. The congressman also didn’t attend a recent televised debate organized by the commission and set to be between him, McDonald and United Utah Party nominee January Walker because of his objection to the moderator, Salt Lake Tribune Executive Editor Lauren Gustus, and his frustrations with an editorial cartoon published by the paper last year.
Friday night’s debate came together after two weeks of negotiations between their campaigns.
While Owens promoted the faceoff on social media on Friday morning with a “Link TBA” post, his campaign ultimately never published the livestream link to Twitter, YouTube or Facebook, as McDonald’s campaign did. The event was livestreamed on the Democrat’s YouTube and Facebook accounts, where around 230 people tuned in via the video-sharing platform, and another 30 or so watched on Facebook.
Although a reporter from The Tribune was allowed to attend the debate, Owens refused to answer a question asked by the reporter in a media scrum following the debate.
“Since the Utah Legislature’s redistricting, the demographics of your district have shifted quite a bit. Has that changed how you’re approaching campaigning and representing the people of District 4?”, The Tribune’s Emily Anderson Stern asked.
Owens responded, “I’m going to let Darlene answer that because I don’t deal with the racist Salt Lake Tribune. I think you knew that already.”
Utah’s 4th District is the only district in the state that has historically had competitive elections. The Legislature’s redrawn congressional maps have made it a near shoo-in for Republicans.
“When you gerrymander a district the way this district has been gerrymandered, you have politicians who are picking their voters, rather than voters picking their representatives,” McDonald said in her answer. “That is undemocratic.”
McDonald, in response to an earlier question asked by the moderator James Curry, a University of Utah associate professor of political science, also sounded off on Owens’ vote to not certify the results of the 2020 presidential election.
“What you’re saying you believe as your core values — what the Founding Fathers fought for and what they fought for during the American Revolution — you just pushed, flushed it down the toilet with that vote on Jan. 6,” McDonald said, referring to Owen’s vote against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes in 2020.
As she responded, Owens chuckled.
“It’s not funny,” McDonald said, as she invoked civil rights leaders like John Lewis, Medgar Evers and Rosa Parks, who fought for voting rights for African Americans, despite sometimes being met with violence.
Owens, who lived in Philadelphia for decades, said, “I voted against Pennsylvania because I lived in Philadelphia for 25 years and they cheat. Everybody who lives there knows they cheat. They are very bold about it.”
This is the first Utah congressional race in which both candidates from the two major parties are Black. Race came up throughout the night, and the election discussion turned into one on the Black Lives Matter protests that took place throughout the summer of 2020.
After McDonald mentioned police injured in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Owens said, “I wonder where Darlene and her party was for the two years in which we had between one and two billion dollars worth of damage,” recalling Black-owned businesses that were burned as part of protests.
“American people are getting tired of the divisiveness, the anger, the violence — the political violence, particularly — and protesting for two years,” Owens said. “It’s amazing that we’re now getting to a point where we’re done with it, we’ll move forward and get everything taken care of again.”
McDonald, who sits on the Salt Lake City Commission on Racial Equity in Policing, said that while she supports the protests, she doesn’t support defunding police.
“We want safe communities just like everyone else. We also want law enforcement to go home just like anyone else,” McDonald said. Referencing Trayvon Martin, she said, “We also want our sons just going to the store to buy Skittles and Arizona iced tea to make it back home.”
When Curry asked the candidates about education, their back-and-forth evolved to focus on critical race theory, an academic concept that asserts that racism is embedded in legal systems and policies. A recent Utah legislative audit found no evidence of it being widely taught in Utah schools.
Owens, who is a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said, “People are very angry because we’re taught the evil of CRT and all those other things that teach the worst about our history.”
Owens, who said he grew up in Florida when much of the state was segregated, said that his upbringing “in a community and a family that believed in education,” led to the success of those around him.
“Because we were taught to think being very proud of our country, talking through things like love God country, family, respect women and authority,” he said. “CRT is exactly the opposite of that.”
“He uses disinformation about what CRT is and keeps spreading the disinformation to keep people divided,” McDonald countered. “I believe he knows what the accurate definition of CRT is and what it is not.”
Noting that critical race theory is generally not taught in K-12 schools, McDonald said there is nothing wrong with teaching history.
For congressional races across the country, where candidates stand on a potential nationwide abortion ban, like one recently proposed by South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“This is a decision that needs to be made that needs to remain with a woman and her doctor,” McDonald said in response to a question on the issue. “The government has no business in this decision whatsoever.”
Although Owens said the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade earlier this year “was a surreal and exciting moment for me,” he does not support the federal government regulating abortion beyond that. To what extent government should be involved in that decision, Owens told viewers, should be up to each individual state.
Third-party candidate Walker was not invited to the debate hosted by Owens and McDonald because of social media posts she made.
They included “personal attacks against me with falsehoods so ridiculous that I won’t bother even mentioning them,” McDonald said on social media.
Walker also posted an image of Owens’ declaration of candidacy form on Twitter, a document that included a phone number and encouraged her supporters to call, saying, “You know what to do.” The number didn’t belong to Owens, but a former campaign worker.
In a tweet the morning of the debate, Walker said called for a “ceasefire” from her supporters.