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News » Private Eye

Owens vs. Owens



I tried as best I could to watch the televised debate on Monday night between Democrat Ben McAdams and Republican Burgess Owens. Owens is trying to unseat McAdams as my representative in the 4th Congressional District. Frankly, it was tough to watch. Perhaps it was the format, or maybe because I too clearly remember the Friday night wrasslin' matches at the Coliseum (demolished in the dead of night!) at the Utah State Fairgrounds. I half-expected a couple of body slams or that maybe someone would attack the moderator like Karl von Brock or Ali Bey used to attack poor Tom Bradshaw, the ringside announcer, and bust his glasses. Every. Single. Week.

Alas, neither McAdams nor Owens share my taste for drama. That's surprising to me since Owens is a former professional football player. I remember seeing him play and recall he was a good defensive player. He played professional football in the 1973 when I had just graduated high school and was already hobbled by my two knees that still keep me up at night and leave me forever cursing the very word football. Football doesn't win votes in my house.

In 1973, another Owens —Wayne Owens—was my congressman. I'm quite certain there is no relation between Wayne and Burgess Owens. Also, except for bearing the same surname, there is virtually no similarity between Wayne and Burgess Owens. For example, I have seen no photographs of the smallish Wayne Owens in a football uniform.

Wayne was a Utah native—born and raised in Panguitch. It hardly seems likely today because rural Utah has gone nearly completely bonkers red, but Wayne was indeed a true-blue Democrat. One of Utah's better ones, in fact. He was also a returned LDS missionary, and after serving in the U.S. Congress, he was assigned as LDS mission president in Montreal, Canada. He touched people and met them head on, notably when he walked nearly the whole state, logging more than 700 miles afoot before Election Day. If Burgess lived here at the time, he'd remember Wayne's bumper stickers that were in the shape of a shoe print. Wayne won his seat in 1972 and was sworn into office in January 1973.

Wayne only served one term, however, leaving Congress in 1975 to run for the U.S. Senate. Maybe he got "above his raising" to borrow a rural phrase, because his first term in Congress didn't lend him enough political strength to beat the big-city boy in Utah's 1974 Senate race. Richfield, Utah-native Jake Garn won. Garn was mid-point through his own first term as Salt Lake City mayor when he ran against Wayne Owens. That gives him the distinction as the answer to a very special trivia question: Who was the last Republican mayor of Salt Lake City? Jake Garn. If you're a Democrat, don't get too heady, because not all mayors since then have been Democrats. Conrad Harrison, who filled the final two years of Garn's mayoral run, listed himself as an independent.

Now, we find ourselves wrapped into another tight race in the 4th District, but with a twist. It's nearly 50 years since Wayne Owens was first elected (but he had a second tenure in the U.S. House from 1986-92). Burgess Owens is not running against Ben McAdams at all—he's running against Wayne Owens and everything he stood for. As fate and history would have it, Wayne Owens was among the unlucky early adopters of forward thinking and progressive politics—and for doing so, became targeted as a liberal. Just watch the nightly barrage of Burgess Owens ads. In every ad, he does little except to deride all things liberal. Is this where Utah is? That just anyone can run without a policy or history, just treading on the basis of not being for a damned thing, just being against a fully obtuse concept? That all liberal thinking must be exterminated? What is the Burgess alternative? He has none.

Wayne Owens came upon his liberalism via an honest route. For example, he was an environmentalist. That's right—a rural Utah environmentalist. Shouldn't all rural Utahns be concerned about the environment? And shouldn't we all be happy that a person like Wayne Owens worked for the betterment of the lands around our rural communities, including working to get them the water they needed for rural growth via the Central Utah Project?

Burgess Owens says he supports President Donald Trump's idea du jour to reinstate nuclear testing. Why? Because it's a Donald Trump idea, apparently. In the Utah Wayne Owens lived in, the word "downwinders" was born, people who were affected and died from nuclear radiation exposure from tests conducted in southern Nevada. To even consider resuming such tests indicates that Burgess Owens has a terrifyingly deaf ear to what Utah is and what Utahns have been through. While he was breaking up passes in the NFL, Utahns were contracting cancer in types and numbers not seen anywhere else in the country.

Scott Matheson, Utah's populist Democratic governor from 1977 to 1985, died of a rare form of cancer that many attribute to being exposed to nuclear winds. Matheson lived and worked in Cedar City during the heavy fallout years in the early 1950s. He lost other family members to rare cancers. On the downwinder predicate alone, Burgess Owens is disqualified to represent Utah—he doesn't know Utah. Dying of cancer isn't a concept to affix to a rally flag.

All told, Ben McAdams isn't that incredibly liberal, anyway, and he represents a district that is gerrymandered to swing the other way. There's only one choice in this race. That vote is for the man from Utah who lives and loves Utah: Ben McAdams.

Send comments to john@cityweekly.net.