Republican Rep. Burgess Owens and Democratic challenger Darlene McDonald agreed on very little in a lively debate Friday that featured two Black congressional candidates for perhaps the first time in Utah.
James Curry, a University of Utah political science professor who moderated the debate, said “as far as we know” two African American candidates have never faced each other in a major political race in the state.
Owens said he didn’t know it was remarkable until a reporter asked him and McDonald about it after the hourlong exchange. He said they might be members of the same race but they’re not monolithic.
“At some point, this even will not be a big deal. We’ll get over it. We’ll just realize this is America. This is who we are,” Owens said.
McDonald said she wants to make sure everyone in the state has representation, noting Utah’s small Black population. She said she wants Utahns to see her as someone who represents their values. All families, she said, want clean air and water, health care and a living wage.
“I hope this is what they see when they look at me,” she said.
The sharpest differences between the 4th Congressional District candidates emerged in their views on abortion and election law during the hourlong exchange. The candidates organized the debate after Owens skipped a scheduled debate earlier this month. The debate was streamed from a venue in South Jordan on social media platforms without a live audience.
Owens refused to participate in a debate sponsored by the nonpartisan Utah Debate Commission because the moderator was the executive editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, which he said ran a “racist” political cartoon about him last year. At the same time, he invited McDonald to join him at two town hall events in October.
McDonald called Owens pulling out of the earlier debate at the last minute “cowardly.” She and United Utah Party candidate January Walker debated without the freshman congressman.
That didn’t come up Friday, though Owens refused to answer a Salt Lake Tribune reporter’s question to both candidates about redistricting after the debate.
“I’m going to let Darlene answer that because I don’t deal with the racist Salt Lake Trib. I think you know that,” Owens said.
During the debate, Owens and McDonald had a prolonged back-and-forth about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that guaranteed a woman the right to abortion.
McDonald said the role of government doesn’t include taking away women’s reproductive freedom and telling them what they can do with their bodies.
“This is a decision that needs to remain with a woman and her doctor,” she said. “The government has no business in this whatsoever.”
Owens said the Supreme Court correctly returned decisions about abortion law to the states. He said it should never have been put in the hands of nine people.
“You will have some people now understand that the life of a baby is important, that it’s not just something to toss away,” he said.
Utah prohibits elective abortions, with few exceptions, including if the mother’s life is at risk, if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest or if two physicians who practice “maternal-fetal medicine” both determine that the fetus has a severe defect. A state judge put the law on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit by Planned Parenthood of Utah.
Owens said he’s proud to live in a state that values life.
“If you want to have unlimited abortion to the very point at which the baby’s born and even afterwards, go to New York. Move to New York. They do that. But here in Utah we don’t,” he said.
In her rebuttal, McDonald said, “Can I say that there’s no such thing as aborting a baby after it’s born? Can I just say that? Am I allowed to say that? That’s called murder.”
Though for different reasons, both candidate said they would oppose a proposed national abortion ban.
McDonald and Owens also had a spirited exchange over election laws and the Capitol riot.
Utah leaders should have promoted the state’s voting system as a model for the country instead of buying into the “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, McDonald said, calling out Owens for voting against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.
“Actually he made that vote, it was after the people had stormed the Capitol in the insurrection,” she said.
Democrats also voted not to certify past presidential elections, Owens said. He said he had a reason to vote against certification for Pennsylvania. “I lived in Philadelphia for 25 years, and they cheat. Everybody who lives there knows they cheat,” he said, adding they change the rules at the 11th hour.
McDonald said Owens and other members of Congress told Pennsylvania residents, including many Black voters, that their vote didn’t matter. “That comes from you guys pushing the big lie because you didn’t agree with the outcome of the election,” she said.
Owens said he’s “very proud” of that vote. He said if he finds something wrong in any state, he’s going to stand against it.