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VIDEO: Owens, McDonald trade barbs during campaign-organized 4th Congressional debate

Incumbent Republican Congressman Burgess Owens faced off against Democratic challenger Darlene McDonald in a second debate for Utah’s 4th Congressional District on Oct. 28.

The debate took place at real estate offices in South Jordan and was moderated by University of Utah political science professor James Curry. A third candidate in the race, United Utah Party candidate January Walker, was not invited.

It was the first debate Owens has participated in since October 2020.

Owens did not debate during the Republican primary and backed out of the first debate organized by the Utah Debate Commission earlier in October over objections to the event's moderator, Salt Lake Tribune executive editor Lauren Gustus.

In a video statement released hours before that event, Owens called the state’s largest newspaper “racist” for publishing a political cartoon with his likeness in April 2021 following his visit to Texas’ southern border. The campaigns organized the second debate on their own.

Owens and McDonald had sharp disagreements on almost every issue that was raised.

Education

Test scores of Utah’s fourth grade students dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, and candidates were asked what they would do to get children’s scores back to pre-pandemic levels.

Owens is the current ranking member of the House Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee and blamed teacher’s unions and Democratic policies for the education gaps seen since 2020.

“Moms and dads are realizing that the schools that we went to in the old days where they taught us how to read, write and think, they are disappearing as these labor unions and bureaucrats focus on how to get more power, get people ignorant, keep our kids angry, hating each other, CRT, hating our past and our history and that's how we destroy our country,” said Owens.

McDonald accused Owens of using the issue of critical race theory to divide people who don’t know what it really is.

CRT is an academic framework used to explore how systemic racism fuels disparities that exist in today’s society. CRT has been criticized by conservatives for putting too much emphasis on group identity. Utah teachers say it is not part of the K-12 curriculum.

“There's nothing wrong with teaching history, and what you are helping spread,” McDonald said to Owens, “is disinformation about something to make people afraid … Then [they] end up going to school board meetings based on disinformation and things that are just simply not true.”

McDonald also said she would support investments in education, including higher education for parents who have not finished college.

“One of the things that I really try to focus on is making sure that we educate the parents,” McDonald said. “There's a link between intergenerational poverty and education. And to be able to get the education back on track, we also have to focus on the parent … That is a direct link between how much money they end up making later on.”

Abortion

Neither candidate said they would support a federal-level abortion ban. McDonald went one step further, though, saying the government should play no part in a woman’s medical decisions. She called out what she sees as Republican hypocrisy on the issue.

“The proper role of government does not include taking away women's reproductive freedom. It does not,” she said. “If you want to champion small government, there isn't a small government that tells a woman what she can and cannot do with her body.”

Owens called the overturning of Roe v. Wade a “surreal, exciting moment” and said the issue should be left to individual states to decide.

“This is a debate we will have as a state, thank goodness,” he said. “I'm proud to be in a state that believes in life … At the end of the day, the values that we have is the reason why we're the fastest growing state in the country. It’s because we have a way that we view our children, the next generation, our babies, our mothers, and we give them options, give them choices.”

Elections and Jan. 6

One of the most heated exchanges of the evening happened in response to a question about what the candidates would do to increase Americans’ faith in elections.

Owens joined 146 other lawmakers in not voting to certify the 2020 Presidential Election on Jan. 6, 2021. McDonald said it was “incumbent on all of us” to ensure American democracy continues.

“What y'all did could have completely overturned what you say you believe as your core value with the Founding Fathers … and what they fought for in the American Revolution,” said McDonald. “You just flushed it down the toilet with that vote on January 6th.”

Owens defended his vote by saying he was objecting to Pennsylvania’s results because of his personal experience in the state.

“I happen to have a reason that I voted against Pennsylvania — because I lived in Philadelphia for 25 years and they cheat and everybody who lives there knows they cheat,” he said. “They are very bold about it.”

There has been no proof that there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

Owens added that each state needs to ensure integrity in its own election process.

“We need to get back to where we were not all thinking that we've been cheated every single time we go out and vote,” Owens said. “That should go away because we have too much good technology to have to deal with that every single election cycle.”

A historic debate

This event marked the first time two major party African-American candidates debated for a Utah Congressional seat.

When asked to reflect on the fact, McDonald said she was running to represent all Utahns. She said she hoped people would see her as “someone who will represent you in Congress.”

Owens celebrated the moment, saying it reflected the Founding Fathers goal of achieving “a more perfect union.”

“We're not monolithic … we have different backgrounds,” Owens said. “And the fact we can sit here and have a conversation — that is the way the American process works.”

Polling website FiveThirtyEight rates the 4th District as “solid Republican” and the most recent poll has Owens 27 points ahead of McDonald.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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