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Love, Owens spar in first — likely only — debate

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SANDY — Both Republican Rep. Mia Love and her Democratic challenger, Doug Owens, said they could help end the partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., during their first and likely only debate.

But they still spent a good part of the hourlong debate Monday on the Salt Lake Community College's Sandy campus arguing about the merits of taxpayer-funded mailers Love sent to her constituents.

Love, seeking a second term after defeating Owens for what was an open seat in 2014, pointed out she has chosen not to support her party's presidential nominee, Donald Trump, and said she sees herself as "pretty independent."

Owens said Washington's "broken system" is "the defining problem of our time," then pitched his proposed ethics plan that includes requiring members of Congress to work five days a week and ending their "self-promotional" mass mailings.

Love countered that the most important work she does is in her district, which includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties.

"It's important for me to come home every single week and remember who it is I represent," she said.

Love said Owens was being "dishonest" in how he described the mailings sent from her congressional office, calling them a way for a new member of Congress to reach out to constituents and noting she has saved taxpayers money in staffing costs.

Owens, a lawyer and the son of late Utah Congressman Wayne Owens, said "tax dollars are sacred and that is a horrible waste of money," citing the more than $300,000 Love has spent on mailers.

They also sparred briefly over the contentious presidential race, with Love criticizing Owens for saying he will vote for his party's nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Love said she has not "closed the door" on backing one of the third-party candidates in the race, and she urged Utahns to get out and vote to hold onto a Republican Congress.

Owens said he's not endorsing Clinton and that there is too much focus on the race for the White House.

There was less friction between the candidates on other issues raised in the debate, including whether to increase the minimum wage and how to ease student debt.

For Love, the answer to both those questions was relying on the free market. She said "artificially" raising the minimum wage would hurt the economy and that the federal government shouldn't have a monopoly on student loans.

Owens, however, said it was time to look at raising the minimum wage and pledged to "get every federal dollar I can into the education system" to reduce the cost of student loans.

Gender equality was also discussed. Love said it is "incredibly difficult to deal with the environment of a male-dominated Congress." Owens talked about staying home with his young children while his wife was in medical school.

The race for the seat once held by the last Democrat to serve in Congress from Utah, Jim Matheson, is expected to be among the most competitive in the state this election even though it is no longer seen nationally as a toss-up.

Love lost to Matheson in 2012 in a close race, but two years later, Owens came within 5 percentage points of winning. He has attracted support from the national Democratic Party this election, but Love is leading in the polls.

After the televised debate sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission, the candidates both said the issue surrounding the mailers was important to have discussed.

"I find it outrageous that someone would come after you for communicating with your residents," Love said. She said she would have liked to have also talked about the national debt and regulations written by government agencies.

Owens said other issues he wished had been discussed included immigration and energy. But he said Love's expenditure on mailers was more than the rest of the delegation combined and "worth pointing out to voters."

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