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RNC speaking slot ‘dream come true,’ congressional candidate Burgess Owens says

SHARE RNC speaking slot ‘dream come true,’ congressional candidate Burgess Owens says
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Republican Burgess Owens speaks during a campaign launch event at Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy on Nov. 6, 2019. Owens, who is running against Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, in the 4th Congressional District, will speak at the Republican National Convention this week.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah 4th Congressional District candidate Burgess Owens said he’ll talk about the hope that sustained him growing up Black in the segregated South in a speech he’s set to deliver during this week’s Republican National Convention.

“My message — and you can see it in this convention — is I represent a party that is the party of hope. Part of that hope is recognizing how far we’ve come as, ‘We the people.’ We continually get better, every single generation. I continually think about my history,” Owens told the Deseret News.

He recalled how as a 12-year-old, he joined a protest of a segregated theater in Florida and “here we are, 50 years later, and I am actually speaking in front of millions of people that are all together on one thing. They want our country to continue to get better, continue to see each other from inside out not outside in.”

The former NFL player and frequent Fox News guest said he found out last week he’d been given a speaking slot at the abbreviated four-day convention that starts Monday that largely will be held virtually due to COVID-19. His speech, which will be taped in Washington, D.C., is scheduled to air Wednesday night.

“Seriously, it’s amazing,” Owens said in an interview from Aspen, Colorado, where Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was holding a fundraiser for him and other GOP candidates. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, have also helped him raise campaign cash since his June 30 primary win.

Owens is running to unseat Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams. A recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics pollshowed Owens and McAdams tied, each with the support of 35% of Utah voters and a significant chunk still undecided.

McAdams, a former Salt Lake County mayor elected in 2018, has been labeled one of the country’s most vulnerable members of Congress seeking reelection. The 4th District race was recently shifted from “leaning Democratic” to a “toss-up” by the nonpartisan analysts at the Cook Report, a Washington, D.C.-based political newsletter.

Unlike Owens, McAdams did not participate in his party’s virtual national convention last week.

“Here’s a key difference,” McAdams’ campaign manager, Andrew Roberts, said in a statement. “Owens falls in line behind party bosses to get himself on TV. Ben McAdams is an independent leader for Utahns.”

Owens said the speech he’ll give is “all mine,” although he acknowledged party officials did trim it to fit what’s anticipated to be about a five-minute time slot. He said he won’t bring up his criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement, especially of athletes taking a knee in support.

Although he said he’d rather be speaking in an arena filled with Republicans bent on giving President Donald Trump majorities in both the House and Senate “to allow the president to move forward even more,” Owens said the opportunity is still “a dream come true.”

He said he’s confident his excitement will come through even without cheers and applause from an audience.

“What you’re going to hear is my background, my ancestry and more importantly, the link for me to hope,” Owens said, a message he believes the country is eager to hear from the GOP. “This convention will show that we are hopeful and moving forward and going to make some great things happen.”

Utah should have been sending a 77-member delegation to Charlotte, North Carolina, headed up by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, for four packed days of speeches and other political activities culminating with Trump’s acceptance of his party’s nomination on Thursday.

But now only six members will be there in person for what will be a few hours of convention business during the day Monday, including the state roll call where Lee will deliver all 40 of Utah’s votes to the president, who won the state’s Super Tuesday GOP presidential primary in March with nearly 88% of the vote.

Everything else associated with the convention is expected to be held virtually. The president will still deliver his acceptance speech on Thursday, but from the White House, and other speeches are expected to be made from Washington, D.C.

When the size of the convention had to be scaled back to about 300 delegates overall due to concerns about the spread of the virus, Trump initially intended to hold some events with arena-sized crowds in Jacksonville, Florida, but abruptly canceled those plans late last month.

Not being part of the hoopla that usually surrounds a national convention is disappointing, said Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, one of the delegates going to North Carolina. She said she plans to be back home by Monday night and watch the rest of the convention at home on TV.

“We don’t get to have the four days of fun convention speeches to watch, and all the different people and the camaraderie with the delegates,” she said. “It’s a bummer not to have that this year. But at the end of the day, we’ve all had to adapt with changes because of the pandemic. It is what it is.”

Winder Newton, who ran for governor this year, had attended her first Republican National Convention in 2016 in Cleveland as a delegate with her brother, state Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, an alternate and their father. This time, she said, delegates are not allowed to bring guests and don’t even know the convention schedule yet.

The focus has been on ensuring those delegates who are participating are virus-free.

“They’ve been big health sticklers,” she said of convention organizers, requiring her and the other 300 or so delegates expected from around the country to turn in the results of an at-home test for COVID-19 and submit daily updates on whether they’re experiencing any symptoms.

Still, Winder Newton said she’s happy to be going.

“I’m a political junkie and I love history,” she said. “To be part of it is exciting.”

Utah delegates won’t be there for Owens’ speech, which will be taped in Washington, according to his campaign spokesman, Jesse Ranney. He said convention officials initially had Owens’ speech slotted slotted for Monday, then Tuesday and finally, for Wednesday.

The Trump campaign confirmed Sunday that Owens is scheduled to speak Wednesday, the same night as Vice President Mike Pence, and flagged Owens and Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer as the only convention speakers with Utah ties.

Owens was to travel to the nation’s capital on Sunday and return to Utah on Wednesday, Ranney said.

His virtual speech is a big change from the 2012 convention experience of Mia Love, who went on to become the first Black Republican woman elected to Congress two years later. Love, who lost her seat to McAdams by less than 700 votes, was part of the same GOP convention that nominated now Utah Sen. Mitt Romney for president.

“At the time of her speech, Mia Love was seen as a rising star and someone who could also help Republicans emphasize a message of racial and gender inclusiveness. She also benefited from Romney being the nominee,” Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said.

“For Burgess Owens, the connection to Trump will not necessarily help with moderate and independent voters, but will likely reinforce his standing among the strongest Republicans,” the political science professor said, adding that Owens’ “biggest liability right now is the perception that he is extreme on some issues.”

Owens often speaks of what he views as a threat from Marxist and socialist Democrats and appeared on an internet program linked to “Qanon,” a baseless conspiracy theory that Trump is at odds with a child sex ring involving powerful people embedded in the deep state that being exposed by an anonymous figure, “Q.”

He has also helped raise money last year for former key Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s private fundraising effort for the border wall, according to a report by Media Matters, a left-leaning nonprofit. Bannon was arrested last week on charges of defrauding donors.

Whether Owens’ convention speech gives his campaign a boost depends on how many Utahns tune in “and what the overall tenor of the convention will be,” Karpowitz said, compared to what he described as the Democrats’ emphasis on “moderation and ideological inclusiveness.”

Also, he said, delivering a speech to an empty room “can be awkward, though Owens has considerable experience speaking to a TV audience on Fox (News) and without a large crowd in the studio. But it definitely might be harder to muster the same sense of enthusiasm.”

Dave Hansen, a former Utah GOP chairman who has run campaigns for Love and many other Republicans over the years, said Owens’ speech will give him credibility with voters. And while that “doesn’t immediately translate into votes,” Hansen said it will mean more money for Owens, who has lagged far behind McAdams in fundraising.

Another Black Republican candidate in Utah speaking at the party’s national convention also conveys an important message about the state, he said.

“It just basically says that Utah has diversity,” Hansen said. “Don’t try to cram us into a box that we don’t necessarily fit in.”

Love, who had suggested after Owens’ primary election victory that there could be a place on the convention stage for him just as there was for her in 2012, said “it’s a real honor to have Utah’s 4th District represented yet again on a national level.”

Calling her own experience “amazing,” Love, now a CNN contributor, said because speaking in Tampa, Florida “opened up all kinds of fundraising opportunities” for her, it “will undoubtedly make the race even that much more competitive” for Owens.

Lee is also enthusiastic about Owens’ speaking slot.

“Burgess Owens is a fantastic candidate and much-need voice in the Republican Party,” Utah’s senior senator said. “As the head of the Utah delegation, I am proud to have him help represent our state.”

Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said the party is excited about Owens’ role at the convention.

“His speech will be an opportunity for Utahns, and also voters across the country, to get to know him and his incredible life journey,” Brown said. “And as we have seen from his surge in the polls, the more that Utahns get to know Burgess, the more they like him, trust him, and want him to be their next member of Congress.”