Candidates running in Utah’s 4th Congressional District didn’t hold back during a debate Wednesday night when the reason for Rep. Burgess Owens dropping out at the last minute came up.

It started with moderator Lauren Gustus reading a comment Owens made about immigration last year that led to The Salt Lake Tribune, where Gustus is the executive editor, publishing a political cartoon that the Republican congressman called “racist” and cited as his reason for withdrawing.

“They are coming to your neighborhoods, not knowing the language, not knowing the culture, and there is a cartel influence along the way. So be aware, don’t think this is a distance from you now, this is coming your way and it is done on purpose by a party who could care less about we the people,” Owens said in April 2021 after a visit to the southern border.

Gustus’ question to Democrat Darlene McDonald and United Utah Party candidate January Walker was how their thinking differs from Owens’ thinking and what can be done to solve issues on the border.

McDonald, who is Black, sighed before saying, “I take this pretty personally.” She said Owens’ statement mimics what the KKK said about “people who look like me, and people who look like him.”

Owens, she said, denigrated people who are looking for a better life, including her father who moved from Alabama to Ohio, and Latter-day Saint pioneers who left Missouri and landed in Utah.

“I took this statement in my heart when he made that statement last year. And for him to pull out of this debate tonight citing racism over a statement that he himself made is cowardly,” McDonald said. “If you think that someone is bullying and you think that they are racist, then you stand up to them. You come here and you stand up to them.”

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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 | Xiangyao Axe Tang

Walker said she agreed with McDonald.

“In addition to that, Rep. Owens has displayed cowardice,” she said. “The reason he is not showing up to this debate has absolutely nothing to do with the cartoon and everything to do with not being able to speak clearly and concisely.”

Walker said Owens has been in “controlled environments” for two years in Congress without the ability to speak freely. “If you take him out of those scenarios, he does not have the ability to speak coherently.”

Earlier Wednesday, Owens explained in a YouTube video that he was pulling out of the debate sponsored by the nonpartisan Utah Debate Commission because Gustus was the moderator.

“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 first-term Republican said in the video. “I expect bias from such a liberal outlet, but racism is where I draw the line. I’ll also not be bullied into participating in a forum of unabashed bigots.”

In April 2021, the Tribune published a political cartoon by its editorial cartoonist Pat Bagley of a Ku Klux Klansman with a torch, pointing and saying the words, “They are coming to your neighborhoods,” alongside a depiction of Owens pointing and saying the same words at the U.S. border. 

The Tribune has stood by the cartoon but did not comment on the debate controversy Wednesday.

Owens tried unsuccessfully to get Gustus replaced as the moderator. Debate commission executive director Erik Nielsen said earlier in the day that the commission stands behind its choice of moderator and believed her questions would be fair and professional.

Regarding solutions to the immigration problem, McDonald said Democrats and Republicans could have solved it for 30 years. She said the border crisis is being used as a political wedge.

“We are talking about human beings, not a football,” she said, adding both parties need to come to the table to work it out.

Walker said there’s no scenario where Republicans and Democrats will ever work anything out.

“This has been manufactured, and it is intentional,” she said. There are ways for people to prove their identity, and they are showing up to follow the law, she said.

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Wednesday’s debate at the University of Utah was the only scheduled debate in the 4th District. Owens also skipped a Utah Debate Commission debate before the GOP primary in June as well as not agreeing to a debate sponsored by the Utah Republican Party.

A debate commission poll in September showed Owens leading McDonald 57% to 30%, with Walker coming in at 6%.