4th Congressional District candidates debate despite incumbent Rep. Burgess Owens’ absence

Fourth Congressional District candidates Darlene McDonald (left) and January Walker (right) stand with moderator Lauren Gustus (middle). They debated at the University of Utah, despite incumbent Burgess Owens’ absence. (Courtney Denning)

Fourth Congressional candidates Darlene McDonald (D) and January Walker (United Utah Party) debated on Oct. 12, despite Representative Burgess Owens’ (R) absence.

The University of Utah hosted the debate and executive editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, Lauren Gustus, moderated.

This debate was preceded by incumbent Burgess Owen’s pulling out of the debate. He released a video statement and said he would not participate in the debate because Gustus was the debate moderator. He said the Tribune published a “racist cartoon” about him last year and she defended the publication of that cartoon.

In a response video posted on Twitter, Owens said “last year, the Salt Lake Tribune published a racist cartoon depicting me as a KKK member. The very same hate group that terrorized my family and my race as a youth in the south. The moderator selected by the Utah Debate Commission not only supported this bigoted cartoon, but she doubled down and defended it.”

In this video, Owens said how after the refusal of the debate commission to remove Gustus as moderator, he “will not, in good conscious, have anything to do with the racist Salt Lake Tribune and will therefore not participate in this debate.”

Both McDonald and Walker referred to Owens as a “coward” for declining his invitation to the debate. McDonald said of the absent Owens, “stand up” and “show up.”

“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 you, you stand up to them.”

McDonald addressed Owens’ specific statement about the Tribune’s political cartoon, stating that the commentary made by the cartoon was warranted based on his previous actions.

“The Representative’s statements that he made in April mimic the statements that were made by the KKK about people who look like me and people who look like him,” she said. “He went to the southern border to denigrate people who are looking for a better life.”

In response to Owens’ non-arrival, Walker resorted to bringing a custom sack of potatoes with the label “Burgess” on it, attempting to place it on his empty podium as a statement. The sack was removed by debate staff.

“Representative Owens has displayed cowardice,” Walker said. “The reason that he is choosing not to show 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.”

2020 Presidential Election

Gustus asked the candidates if they believed the 2020 presidential election was fair, and referenced four of the six candidates that contested county clerk races in Utah have publicly referenced conspiracy theories connected to the legitimacy of the race.

Both candidates said that the election results were legitimate and expressed concern in the large number of election deniers.

McDonald said she trusts the election process and specifically praised Utah for their effective voting procedures. 

Walker said she sympathized with voters who are disenfranchised with the current two-party system. “There is nothing wrong with modernizing the way that we vote,” she said.

Gender Equality

When asked how she would improve gender equality in Utah, Walker began by saying that she would love to see a woman elected to represent the state in the federal congress, because there are currently none.

Walker also said that while Utah has one of the highest educated female populations in the nation, very few of these women are currently working. She said she supports incentivizing mothers to go back into the workforce, including offering higher-paying part-time work and prioritizing paid time off.

McDonald spoke of Utah’s high maternal mortality rate, and proposed greater access to healthcare and increased paid sick leave and maternity leave as solutions to this issue. She also said corporations need to be held accountable to end the gender pay wage gap.

Higher Education

Walker said there is a sharp spike in costs of higher education, but said the government does not have the resources to provide free education to every American. She proposed that the government track and trace their spending to avoid misappropriation of funds, potentially allocating these funds to education. 

Walker also said that she would like to see some college curriculum being taught earlier, better preparing students for the workforce immediately after they graduate high school.

McDonald said she believes intergenerational poverty is the main cause of educational problems.

“For me, it’s about breaking that chain of intergenerational poverty,” McDonald said.

She believes funding higher education on the same level that K-12 is funded is the key to solving this issue.

War in Ukraine

When asked if the U.S. should be doing more or less to fund Ukraine’s fight against Russia, McDonald said she would adhere to to the State Department’s recommendations on how much money the U.S. should provide.

“Ukraine is fighting for democracy,” McDonald said. “If we truly believe in democracy in this country, as we say we do, then we have to stand up for democracy here at home and also stand up for the people in Ukraine.”

Walker said her first priority is the American people. She said that solving inflation in the U.S. will help the global economy, which will ultimately benefit Ukraine. 

Walker also said the war is a result of poor communication between political leaders. “You don’t think that our government officials are going and having conversations with Russia?” she said. “I would be incredibly shocked if we did not.”

Inflation and Gas Prices

Walker said the key to reducing inflation is to eliminate national debt and use new technology to improve supply chains.

Both Walker and McDonald said that oil companies have predatory practices that they use against consumers to increase their income. McDonald pledged to vote in support of bills requiring oil companies to stop price gouging — bills that, according to McDonald, Representative Owens voted against.

Closing Statements

“The Republican and Democratic parties no longer serve you,” Walker said. “They stopped serving the people a long time ago.” She also said the major parties work together to manufacture sensationalism instead of trying to solve political issues. 

“It’s manipulation. It’s a manipulation, the entire thing. It’s fake,” Walker said.

In her final remarks, McDonald again referenced Owens’ absence. “I am running for Congress because I believe in representation on this stage,” she said.

McDonald also invited those who had never voted before to vote for someone who will show up to events and fight for them in Congress. She said she believes Representative Owens has not done this, but she will.

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