With ballots already in hand for voters across Utah, two of the three notable candidates for Utah’s 4th Congressional District — Incumbent Rep. Burgess Owens, the GOP candidate, and Democrat Darlene McDonald — sat side by side for a quickly planned debate on Friday.
In her opening statement, McDonald discussed her personal story before ending with a direct call to voters and the issues she hopes to focus on in Washington, D.C. “Whether it’s health care, whether it’s social security, whether it’s for clean air or water,” she said.
Owens immediately targeted the “leftist, Democrat Supreme Court” for taking God out of schools — referencing Engel v. Vitale, the 1962 Supreme Court ruling making school-sponsored prayer unconstitutional — and critical race theory as his reasons for running for Congress.
The debate quickly became a partisan bout, with Owens saying Democrat policies from President Joe Biden and Congress have worsened inflation. McDonald responded by saying, “The worst thing you can do with hyper-inflation is cut taxes,” and discussing the 2017 tax cuts passed by then-President Donald Trump.
When discussing housing, Owens encouraged better funding for rural areas and “getting back in control of the economy.”
“We have to be smart about how we expand the growth,” Owens said.
McDonald responded that Owens voted against the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which would have increased funding for broadband and other issues in rural areas.
Owens also referenced a conspiracy theory that the bill included funding for 87,000 armed IRS agents.
Repeatedly, the conversation returned to the economy, with Owens saying there should be profit incentives to allow for free-market competition. McDonald responded that profit-seeking caused the health care problems leading her political philosophies.
“We have a prescription care system, we don’t have an actual well care system,” she said. Owens disagreed, saying that having more small-business — whether they’re competing with Big Box stores or major hospitals — would lower prices overall.
The conversation soon moved to education, as test scores continue to drop on a national level for elementary and middle school students.
McDonald drew a link between the education of parents to students, encouraging greater investment across the board to find out “what works” for all students. Owens advocated for more critical thinking in schools, arguing that Democrats and labor unions are ruining the education system and seek to “get people ignorant.”
“I will be the chairman of the pre-K through 12 on (the House Committee on Education and Labor) and I cannot wait to disrupt the antiquated, not working for the American people, educational system,” he said.
McDonald called out Owens for disinformation on critical race theory, saying he is “telling his base that we are teaching their children something that we are not teaching them in school. There’s nothing wrong with teaching history, and what you are helping spread is disinformation.”
Regarding the drought, Owens praised Utahns for innovation while saying the state should be figuring our ways to bring in water, akin to the Keystone XL pipeline, but for water. “What about a pipeline for water? We have rich, water-rich states throughout our western union. How about figuring out a way to bring that water down to the Colorado River,” Owens asked.
McDonald reiterated Owens’ vote against the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which provided funding for water infrastructure. She also questioned his idea for a pipeline to bring water across states being fiscally or practically feasible.
For rebuilding trust in election systems, Owens said he supports the efforts of states to secure elections, including through voter ID laws, and that people who lose should accept election losses and not think they’ve been cheated. McDonald said that Utah “got this right” for elections. The state’s election directors toured the country to showcase the state’s systems, which includes universal vote-by-mail.
“I do agree with having IDs to go vote, but understand the history of why older African Americans had a problem getting identification,” McDonald said.
Speaking about the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, McDonald called out Owens for voting to overturn Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. “You had Medgar Evers, you had Rosa Parks, you had so many people who fought for, who died for, us to be able to to vote and to be able to hold the American democracy,” McDonald said. “What you did on Jan. 6 said it does not matter.”
In response, Owens questioned McDonald and the Democratic Party’s thoughts regarding nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 killing by officers with the Minneapolis Police Department.
When the conversation came to abortion, the moderator asked both candidates if they would support a federal abortion ban at 15 weeks put forward by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina. McDonald said she believes the decision should be left between a woman and her doctor. “The government has no business in this whatsoever,” she said.
Owens praised the overturning of Roe v. Wade, saying that the decision belongs to the states. “I would go against anything that pushes things back to the federal government again,” Owens said.
He also claimed that New York allows abortions up to the end of pregnancy. New York law allows abortions after 24 weeks only if the fetus is not viable.
“You’re not going to be able to sit next to me and lie. That is not going to happen. You can have your opinion, but you are not subject to your own facts,” McDonald said.
The debate itself was delayed by almost 30 minutes due to technical difficulties with the livestream. Missing from the debate was January Walker, the United Utah Party candidate. Walker participated in the Oct. 12 Utah Debate Commission-sponsored interaction, which Owens skipped, citing what he called a “racist” cartoon from The Salt Lake Tribune’s cartoonist, Pat Bagley. The debate was moderated by the Tribune’s executive editor, Lauren Gustus. He added that Erik Nielsen, director of the Utah Debate Commission, declined the campaign’s request to remove Gustus. Friday’s debate was moderated by James Curry, a professor of political science at the University of Utah.
Walker let her opinions be known online regarding her not being included in the makeup debate. For several days, Walker encouraged followers to contact the McDonald and Owens campaigns to let her participate. She continued retweeting and sharing messages of support until hours before the debate.
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