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Utah’s 4th Congressional debate goes on despite incumbent Owens’ absence

Rep. Darlene McDonald and Rep. January Walker speak in a 4th Congressional District debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. Republican U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens refused the invitation for the debate citing the chosen moderator, Executive Editor Lauren Gustus of The Salt Lake Tribune.
Xiangyao "Axe" Tang
The Daily Utah Chronicle, pool
Rep. Darlene McDonald and Rep. January Walker speak in a 4th Congressional District debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. Republican U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens refused the invitation for the debate citing the chosen moderator, executive editor Lauren Gustus of The Salt Lake Tribune.

Only two candidates running for Utah's 4th Congressional District showed up to the debate stage at the University of Utah Wednesday.

An empty podium stood for Republican U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens while Democratic nominee Darlene McDonald and United Utah Party candidate January Walker laid out how they would represent their constituents in Washington.

Rep. Owens announced he would not attend just hours before the debate started.

In a video posted on social media Wednesday, Owens said he chose not to participate because the non-partisan Utah Debate Commission selected Salt Lake Tribune executive editor Lauren Gustus to moderate.

Owens called the state’s largest newspaper “racist” for publishing a political cartoon following his visit to Texas’ southern border in April 2021.

“I will not in good conscience have anything to do with the racist Salt Lake Tribune and will therefore not participate in this debate,” the incumbent said. “I expect bias from such a liberal outlet, but racism is where I draw the line.”

Reps. Chris Stewart, R-UT, and John Curtis, R-UT, along with Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, issued a joint statementsupporting Owens’ decision not to attend. They said it was not “in the spirit of good debate” for their colleague to answer questions from the moderator because she approved and defended the cartoon.

Both challengers condemned Owens for not showing up and called the action “cowardice” during the debate.

But Owens’ absence didn’t stop McDonald and Walker from addressing issues like inflation, gender equity and reproductive health care.

Women’s issues

Utah has routinely ranked last for women’s equality and for working women.

McDonald said the issues hit close to home as she is a single mother juggling a career with minimal institutional support. She knocked the U.S. for having the highest maternal mortality rate of any industrialized country and said the nation needs to “nurture families from cradle to grave.”

“That means we have to get rid of the gender wage gap,” McDonald said. “That means we have to have access to health care, making sure that everyone can have paid sick pay leave as well as maternal leave.”

McDonald also criticized Republicans in Congress for entertaining a nationwide 15-week abortion ban. The bill was in response to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade which guaranteed the right to an abortion.

“The Supreme Court decision to push reproductive freedom to the states, basically made free states and unfree states for women,” she said. “It is not the role of the government to decide a women's reproductive rights or freedom.”

Walker said the first thing Utah could do to lower gender inequality would be to elect women to federal and state office. Aside from that, she said Congress must do more to support working women and caregivers.

She said too often women have to choose between building a career or taking care of the family unit. Walker recommended incentivizing businesses to offer high-paying, part-time jobs.

By doing so, it will “bring more individuals into the workforce, grow the economy there and allow for women to take their place in the business world,” she said.

Walker agreed that the government should stay out of the reproductive health conversation. But added the issue won’t be adequately addressed within the two-party system.

“As long as we have Republicans and Democrats elected in office, this is not going to be fixed,” Walker said. “And that means that you are leaving millions upon millions of women without protection in terms of health care.”

She said messages regarding topics like abortion “have been carefully crafted” on both sides of the aisle to “divide and manipulate” the nation.

But Walker said a start would be to find “the lowest common denominator” that all parties can agree on. To her, that means ensuring reproductive health care in instances of rape and maternal health.


On inflation, McDonald said the Federal Reserve, which controls interest rates, is doing its job to cool off the economy following the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it came to gas prices, McDonald applauded the House for passing The Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act which cracked down on oil companies' inflating the cost of gasoline.

“That is one way that Congress can hold the oil companies accountable for the pain that we are feeling at the pump,” she said.

Rep. Owens voted against the bill on the House floor.

But she said Congress should do more to prevent companies from hiking prices to gain profit.

“This is corporate greed and we need to address corporations for not bringing those prices down,” Mcdonald said. “We're doing what we're supposed to do with the interest rates.”

Walker agreed with McDonald that Congress should hold corporations accountable for fueling inflation, but she said both parties in Congress are participating in “cronyism” and prioritizing special interests above the needs of citizens.

“If they actually wanted to fix this problem, as they have had the opportunity for decades, they would have done it already,” she said, “but neither of them profits or stays elected by doing so.”

Her recommendation for lowering inflation is to bolster the nation’s supply chain by using technology, but she didn’t give details.

Walker also said the federal government should use technology to track every penny spent. By doing so, she said the government would be able to reduce the national deficit and lower inflation.

Despite his no-show, Owens said he will host two town halls for constituents on Oct. 22 and 29. A time for the town halls had not been announced as of publication.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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