‘I’m serving everyone’: Rep. Burgess Owens opens up on his first month in office
Rep. Owens sat down for his first interview since taking office and discussed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Jan. 6 Capitol attack and the GOP’s quest for unity
As I sat outside the door to Rep. Burgess Owens’ office in Washington on Thursday, Fox News played on the TV. A familiar face appeared — Jason Chaffetz, former Utah representative-turned-Fox News contributor. Owens has taken the opposite route: first stop Fox News, next stop Washington. I grinned at the coincidence.
Just as Chaffetz began discussing the Liz Cheney-Marjorie Taylor Greene drama (“Republicans are as united as they’ve ever been in the House,” he said), Owens’ booming voice came from down the hall. “Come on in, Samuel,” he said, and we bumped elbows.
This was the first time I’d seen Owens since August, when he met with our editorial board over Zoom to discuss the final leg of his campaign. In fact, this was the first sit-down interview he’d done since taking office last month.
He ousted the incumbent Ben McAdams in a nail-biter, and I congratulated him on his victory. Three days ahead of the Super Bowl, he responded with a football analogy: “I’ve been on the sideline for a long time,” he said. “But to be on the field at this particular point is a remarkable blessing.”
I asked him to tell me about his first month in office. He started by discussing the tight margin Democrats have in the House — the smallest since World War II — and the need for compromise. His main areas of focus, he said, are getting small businesses open again, getting kids back in school and distributing the COVID-19 vaccine. “We just need a few moderate Democrats to come with us, to focus on what really makes a difference right now.”
I mentioned that McAdams was one of those moderate Democrats, and I asked what it was that appealed to voters about Owens over McAdams. “When I say moderate,” he clarified, “I’m not looking for those who say they are, but those who vote in that particular way.”
The night before our interview, Owens spent five hours with his fellow Republican House members discussing what to do with Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted for Trump’s impeachment, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has come under fire for supporting conspiracy theories and for her controversial social media posts. I read to him a line from that morning’s Associated Press report: that the two women “enrage opposite ends of the party’s spectrum.” To which side of that spectrum does Owens more closely align?
“We have this great big tent,” Owens responded, in Kevin McCarthy-esque fashion. “We embrace the fact we have such a diversity as a positive thing. My goal is simply to have friendships with everyone on the Republican side.”
Perhaps unity with conspiracy theorists is no better than division, though, and I asked Owens if he participated in the standing ovation for Greene after her remarks Wednesday night. He gave an emphatic “yes.” He explained that Greene shared her background and her confusion with QAnon — “which the left continues to love to tie in” — and that she apologized to freshman House members weeks ago. “She made a very good case of why we give each other second chances. We are a party of second chances.”
To bring the point home, Owens spoke of his old Super Bowl Raiders team — made up of misfits. “If you were too old, too rambunctious, too wild, whatever, and other NFL teams didn’t want you, you were just right for the Raiders. … That’s what this Republican Party is all about. So I will say thank you to Democrats for allowing this opportunity for us to come together and know what we’re up against. It’s not against each other. It’s against those who are against the values we have.”
Just a few hours after my conversation with Owens, House members voted to strip Greene of her committee assignments. Owens saw it coming, and he didn’t like it: “The ones who control the House will control committees moving forward. If they continue this process, it’s dangerous. It’s not the way the American people work.”
Regarding Owens’ third day in office, Jan. 6, I offered a football analogy of my own: many of the people who stormed the Capitol were wearing his team’s “jersey,” implying that they were on his team. Does he accept those members of the Republican team?
He clarified that the Trump supporters at the Capitol — “the 150 or so” — were “knuckleheads” that do not represent the party, “just like the Democratic Party says they were not represented by antifa and Black Lives Matter, that destroyed, for an entire year, cities across the country.”
“There was Black Lives Matter, there were Democrats, there were Republicans who’ve never voted (at the Capitol on Jan. 6),” he said.
The Republicans that Owens identifies with show up to rallies, they clean after themselves, they sing “God Bless America” and they leave peacefully, he said. “I don’t accept the narrative that the Democrats want to place 150 knuckleheads as representatives as my party or me.”
“My goal is simply to have friendships with everyone on the Republican side.” — Rep. Burgess Owens
Owens finds himself in a similar situation as President Joe Biden in that nearly as many people voted against him as for him, yet he still has to be a representative for all of his constituents, regardless of party or ideology. How will he do it?
He shared a book recommendation, “The Five Love Languages,” and said that his love language is service. “I’d love to serve 24 hours a day, and if I found one more hour, I’d put it in there.” He shared his final football analogy — “You can’t control the scoreboard, but you can control your hustle” — and promised his constituents that he would work as hard and hustle as hard as anyone.
“Even those who did not vote for me, what we all do want is the same thing. They want to go to work, they want to prosper, they want to worship their faith or not. ... If I focus on the policies and make that happen, I’m serving everyone.”
As I got up to leave, I glanced at his Super Bowl ring. “Who are you cheering for Sunday?”
He looked confused, then his eyes got big. “Oh boy. Is that this week?”
We laughed together. Then he got serious. “I won’t be watching. Once they stop the kneeling thing, and fire (Commissioner Roger) Goodell, I’ll be watching again.”
As much as this Super Bowl champion loves football, he is on a different field now.