By SAM METZ Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The two candidates who challenged U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens in a congressional race in suburban Utah criticized the first-term Republican Wednesday night for announcing at the last minute that he would not participate in the election. only debate of the general elections.
Democrat Darlene McDonald and January Walker of the Utah United Party accused Owens of being a coward for skipping it and questioned his reasoning: that he disagreed with the moderator.
Owens’ absence reflects an emerging trend in politics nationwide; While posting attack ads and talking to friendly media outlets, candidates and their consultants decide to minimize debate appearances or avoid them altogether.
Owens said Wednesday afternoon that he would not participate because the commission had chosen Salt Lake Tribune editor Lauren Gustus as moderator.
He was outraged in April 2021 when the newspaper ran an editorial cartoon lampooning comments he made about immigration and people crossing the border illegally. The sketch compared his comments about immigrants entering people’s neighborhoods after crossing the border to the rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan. The cartoon was rejected by the entire Utah congressional delegation.
“In good conscience, I will have nothing to do with the racist Salt Lake Tribune,” he said in a statement posted on Facebook and YouTube.
McDonald and Owens are both black. Owens is one of two black Republicans in the US House of Representatives and often speaks of experiencing racism growing up in the segregated South, noting that he was controlled by Democrats at the time.
In response to a question about immigration and the cartoon, McDonald said the comment about Owens’ remarks was warranted. His comments, the Democrat said, “mimic statements the KKK made about people who look like me and people who look like him.”
“For him to walk out of this debate tonight citing racism for a statement he himself made is cowardly,” he added.
“His choice not to show up for this debate has absolutely nothing to do with the cartoon and everything to do with not being able to speak clearly and concisely,” he said.
Owens also skipped a primary debate organized by the commission amid Republican complaints about the format.
The Salt Lake Tribune declined to comment. The Utah Debate Commission supported the choice of Gustus as moderator and said it was disappointed that Owens did not participate.
“We believe the moderator’s questions will be fair and professional, and will represent the Utah Debate Commission on an independent, nonpartisan issue,” said Erik Nielsen, executive director of the commission.
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