Utah Rep. Burgess Owens pulled out of a scheduled debate Wednesday because the moderator is the executive editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, which he says ran a “racist” cartoon about him last year.

“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 a video posted on YouTube. “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.”

The Utah Debate Commission debate is scheduled for Wednesday night at the University of Utah with Tribune executive editor Lauren Gustus as the moderator.

Democrat Darlene McDonald and United Utah Party candidate January Walker will take the stage without Owens. Both blasted him on Tuesday after learning he had not committed to the debate.

What the debate commission has done is “tone deaf” and a disservice to 4th Congressional District voters, Owens said. He said he tried to get the commission to remove Gustus but it refused.

Commission executive director Erik Nielsen issued a statement saying the commission is disappointed to hear Owens will not participate in the debate, which will be televised on local television stations.

“The Utah Debate Commission stands behind the choice of moderator for tonight’s debate between candidates running for the 4th Congressional District. We believe the moderator’s questions will be fair and professional, representing the Utah Debate Commission in an independent, non-partisan matter,” according to Nielsen.

Created in 2013, the independent commission has two co-chairpersons from the Republican and Democratic parties and a board made up of representatives from Utah television stations and public universities, as well as business and civic leaders.

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. 

Earlier in April after a trip to the southern border, Owens said on Newsmax, “We are seeing every single day, people coming here and within hours getting on a train or a plane and going to your neighborhood. So, no Americans, this isn’t a border issue anymore. 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 reacted to the Tribune cartoon on Twitter at the time, saying, “We have heard of ‘mansplaining’ now we have ‘whitesplaining’ from a white man comparing a black man, who grew up under Jim Crow laws, to the KKK. Awful tone deaf @sltrib @PatBagley. Expect an apology but won’t hold my breathe.”

In response, the Tribune published an editorial calling Owens’ comments about the border a “string of lies” with “odious” intent “to treat anyone who looks new to this country with suspicion. Anyone who doesn’t know the language or ‘the culture’ should be suspected of working for criminal enterprises.”

“Tribune comes out in full support of my cartoon. Because it was accurate,” Bagley tweeted at the time, along with a link to the editorial.

Utah Rep. Burgess Owens says caring for migrant children will cost taxpayers $3 trillion, but will it?

Bagley said last April he would have drawn the same cartoon had any other member of Utah’s congressional delegation made similar comments about immigration.

“If any one of these Utah pols uttered the white supremacist dogwhistle Burgess Owens used he would have been featured in the cartoon. Treating Owens differently because of his race is the definition of racism,” he tweeted.

Last April, the other five members of Utah’s all-Republican congressional delegation issued a joint statement calling the cartoon “repugnant” and demanded the Tribune take it down.

On Wednesday, Sen. Mike Lee and Reps. Chris Stewart and John Curtis put out a statement saying they stand behind Owens.

“We do not believe it to be in the spirit of good debate for our friend and colleague to be subjected to questions from the person who approved the image and refused to take it down — even after being advised of its offensive nature,” the statement said.

Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Blake Moore did not join the statement.

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Also, Wednesday, Bagley tweeted, “Maybe @BurgessOwens should debate his Democratic opponent @VoteDarlene Darlene McDonald instead of misrepresenting my cartoon to get out of answering hard questions.”

In the video, Owens invited McDonald to join him at town hall meetings on Oct. 22 and Oct. 29. McDonald said she would accept the offer.

Walker said in a tweet that she hasn’t received an invitation for the town hall.

“If a candidate is unwilling to show up to a debate because of a mean cartoon, then they’re not going to show up for you in Washington when things get tough,” Walker tweeted.

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