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Rep. Burgess Owens pulls out of Utah 4th Congressional debate hours before start

Utah Rep. Burgess Owens talks to supporters during an Utah Republican election night party on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in South Jordan, Utah.
George Frey
Utah Rep. Burgess Owens talks to supporters during an Utah Republican election night party on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in South Jordan, Utah.

Hours before he and his opponent were scheduled to appear on stage for their only debate, U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens announced that he would boycott the event because the Utah Debate Commission chose a Salt Lake Tribune editor to moderate.

The first-term Republican's last-minute decision to skip the debate reflects a trend emerging in politics nationwide; while running attack ads and speaking to friendly media outlets, candidates and their consultants are deciding to minimize debate appearances or shirk them altogether.

The non-partisan Utah Debate Commission said in a statement on Tuesday that they had not received confirmation from Owens or his team about whether he planned to attend Wednesday evening's debate, yet noted they planned to proceed regardless. Owens also skipped a commission-organized primary debate amid complaints from the Republican Party about the format.

Owens said Wednesday he wouldn't participate because the commission had chosen Salt Lake Tribune executive editor Lauren Gustus as moderator.

“I will not, in good conscience, have anything to do with the racist Salt Lake Tribune,” he said in a statement published on Facebook and YouTube.

Owens, who represents a suburban district south of Salt Lake City and rarely talks to Utah media outlets, was outraged in April 2021 when the newspaper published an editorial cartoon that satirized remarks he made about immigration and people crossing the border illegally. The sketch likened his remarks about immigrants entering people's neighborhoods after crossing the border to Ku Klux Klan rhetoric.

Owens is one of two Black Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives and often speaks publicly about experiencing racism during his childhood in the segregated South, routinely noting it was controlled by Democrats at the time. The cartoon garnered pushback from Utah's entire congressional delegation.

The Salt Lake Tribune declined to comment on Owens' remarks, while the Utah Debate Commission stood behind its choice of Gustus as moderator and said it was disappointed that Owens wouldn't participate.

"We believe the moderator’s questions will be fair and professional, representing the Utah Debate Commission in an independent, non-partisan matter," Erik Nielsen, the commission's executive director, said.

Democrat Darlene McDonald and United Utah Party candidate January Walker are both expected to appear at the debate.

This story was written by Sam Metz of the Associated Press

Updated: October 12, 2022 at 3:34 PM MDT
Updated with comment from the Utah Debate Commission
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