By dodging debates and the press, Burgess Owens insults his own constituents, the Editorial Board writes

4th District representative won’t face his opponents or the public.

(Xiangyao "Axe" Tang | Pool) Darlene McDonald, left, and January Walker speak in a 4th Congressional District debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. Rep. Burgess Owens did not attend and was represented by an empty podium.

If Burgess Owens can’t stand the heat, he should stay out of the kitchen.

Utah’s 4th Congressional District representative is running for a second term by doing all he can to dodge the local press, his rival candidates and, in the process, his own constituents.

Owens refused to participate in the pre-primary debate sponsored by the independent Utah Debate Commission, leaving his only Republican challenger, Jake Hunsaker, to face the voters alone.

At first, Owens followed the lead of the state party apparatus, which had insisted that Republican primary debates should be run by the Republican Party, as if the rest of the people of the district had no interest in the outcome. But even when the party sponsored its own debates for congressional primary candidates, Owens did not appear.

Owens paid no electoral price for that stiff-arm, riding incumbency and name recognition to an overwhelming primary win.

Then, when it came time to stand up in the general election debate with his challengers from the Democratic and United Utah parties, the only opportunity for most voters to see the three candidates respond to questions, Owens was again a no-show.

His ridiculous excuse was that he did not want to participate in the debate because it was to be moderated, by the debate commission’s choice, by Lauren Gustus, the executive editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.

Owens is still clinging to the absurd claim that The Tribune published a “racist” cartoon about him, a cartoon rightly targeting him for disgusting things he said about immigrants in April of last year.

Sounds Familiar | Pat Bagley

The cartoon was not racist. What Owens said about immigrants to the United States was. All the cartoon did was point out the obvious.

“Americans, this isn’t a border issue anymore,” Owens said. “They are coming to your neighborhoods, not knowing the language, not knowing the culture, and there is a cartel influence along the way. 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.”

As The Tribune said in an editorial at the time, claims that people who are from another land, who may speak a different language or do other things differently, are to be greeted as criminals, feared and excluded from we, the people, are a disgrace. A disgrace to Owens, to Congress, to the Republican Party and to Utah.

The Pat Bagley cartoon Owens continues to object to -- to hide behind -- did no more than draw the obvious, bluntly, truthfully noting that Owens’ words of today are right out of the Ku Klux Klan playbook from 70 years ago, seeking to gain power by raising unjustified and racist fears of people just because the look different or talk funny or cook differently.

As a Black American growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Owens has doubtlessly experienced racism in many forms. It makes sense that he would be sensitive to racism now, and he has every right to call it out when he sees it.

But just because he doesn’t like something that was said about him doesn’t make it racist. And his refusal to participate in debates or talk to the press is not about the debate commission or any local newspaper, TV station or website. It’s about dodging the responsibility of any representative to answer to his constituents.

Owens has now agreed to a make-up debate to be streamed online this Friday, almost two weeks after ballots have been mailed out and less than two weeks before Election Day. Owens at first insisted on a ban on any news media being present at the debate, again because he did not want anyone from The Tribune anywhere around him. He has since relented on that demand but only because, his campaign says, The Tribune will have no role in formulating the questions.

If Utah were not such an overwhelmingly one-party state, we might hope that Democratic challenger Darlene McDonald would refuse to participate in the debate as a protest against Owens’ behavior. But with so few opportunities to get her ideas before the public, and apparently only the one chance to go toe-to-toe Owens, that is a luxury she cannot afford.

Owens is happy to bounce around the country, appearing before friendly crowds with other Republican candidates, and to appear on Fox “News” and other right-wing media, where he can be confident that his ridiculous remarks will not be challenged.

But when it comes to facing his own voters, directly or through the local news media organizations that are devoted to sussing out the truth for the benefit of those voters, Owens is nowhere to be found.

Update: This editorial has been updated to reflect the fact that news media coverage of Friday’s online debate will be permitted.