SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4) — US Rep. Burgess Owens released a statement on YouTube today explaining why he won’t be attending tonight’s congressional debate at the University of Utah — and he says a Salt Lake Grandstand political cartoon is to blame.
The reason the cartoon is an issue, Owens said, is because the moderator of tonight’s debate is the Tribune’s Executive Editor Lauren Gustus. Owens said in his video that Gustus’ support of the cartoon led him to ask she be removed as a moderator. Owens said the Utah Debate Commission refused, leading him to drop out of the debate.
The debate will be carried live in its entirety on ABC4.com’s live stream tonight at 6 pm
The cartoon, drawn by Pat Bagley, depicts Owens in comparison to a member of the KKK. The cartoon shows Owens complaining about migrants coming over the US border by saying, “THEY are coming to YOUR neighborhoods.” Next to that depiction is a cartoon Klansman saying the same thing with the caption “70 years ago.”
Bagley defended his cartoon on Twitter today, stating, “I make no apologies. Quotation is not defamation. I wasn’t the one here repeating 70-year-old KKK slanders against the weak and powerless.” The paper also criticized Owens’s stance on immigrants in an op-ed on April 15.
“[Gustus] selected by the Utah Debate Commission not only supported this bigoted cartoon, she doubled down and defended it, even after the entire Utah delegation openly stated their disgust for such an ugly attack,” said Owens. “…I will not, in good conscience, have anything to do with the racist Salt Lake Tribune.”
Owens also stated he would not be “bullied” into participating in the forum of “unabashed bigots.”
In a statement this afternoon, the Utah Debate Commission responded to Owens’ video:
“The Utah Debate Commission is disappointed to hear that Rep. Burgess Owens will not participate in tonight’s debate. 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. We welcome Rep. Owens to join us on stage this evening for a meaningful dialogue which will inform voters in Utah’s 4th Congressional District.
Utah Debate Commission Executive Director Erik Nielsen, Co-Chair Wayne Niederhauser, and C-Chair Ed Allen
“What the Utah Debate Commission has done is tone-deaf and a disservice to the voters of the 4th District.” said Owens. “…I want my constituents to hear from me why I will not turn my back on the injustices my family and my race have experienced. To participate in this sham of a debate would be doing just that.”
Owens is instead proposing to hold a separate event with himself and Democratic challenger Darlene McDonald on both Oct. 22 and Oct. 29. Details on those events, he said, could be worked out between both parties. McDonald said in a press release that she would accept Owens’ invitation for both dates. However, she also said she would be holding a press conference tonight, as well, to address “material omissions of fact from his statement today on why he chose not to attend the Utah Debate Commission through a series of rationalizations and excuses.”
Owens did not mention United Utah Party challenger January Walker, who will be part of tonight’s debate.
When asked for comment, Walker told ABC4, “If your 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. I personally suspect his cognitive abilities are steeply declining and his handlers are keeping him in a controlled environment. Utah deserves better.”
Owens has dropped out of previous debates. He refused to debate previous opponent Jake Hunsaker prior to the primary election earlier this year. The debate was held with only Hunsaker answering questions.