Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Republican Congressman Burgess Owens apologized to "liberals" during a visit to Utah's Capitol Hill Thursday, saying he now realizes the difference between liberals, Marxists and socialists.
His comments came after a Democratic lawmaker challenged him for a divisive "tone and tenor" on cable TV in a time when the nation needs healing.
Owens also said he now accepts Joe Biden as the U.S. president after he and Utah Rep. Chris Stewart voted Jan. 6 to object to the certification of Pennsylvania's Electoral College votes, but Owens also defended that vote and what it meant for the state of Pennsylvania.
Owens spoke during a meeting with Utah's House Democrats after he first visited behind closed doors with the House and Senate GOP caucuses.
"I really resonate with what we're saying about working toward the best of us as Americans and working to solve problems and coming together," Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, told Burgess after he spent a good portion of his remarks talking about finding common goals across the political aisle.
"I really appreciate that, but I also feel like it's in contrast to some of the tenor and tone that you've taken on cable TV shows or in your book which is titled, 'Liberalism or How to Turn Good Men into Whiners, Weenies and Wimps,'" Harrison said.
"So my question to you is, in a nation that needs healing and needs to come together to solve real problems without name calling, without vilifying other Americans that may have a different approach or a different policy idea, what do you commit to do to being part of that solution in the public sphere and bringing civility to the public discourse?"
Burgess — a Democrat-turned-conservative-Republican, former NFL player and frequent Fox News guest who has blamed "black elitists" for holding back African Americans — told Harrison: "You have to understand, growing up when I did and and seeing the damage that has happened to my community and the death, I'm passionate about it."
Burgess added, "What I didn't realize and now I am realizing is that the ideology that we're all fighting against is something we all need to know is out there. There are literally people who do not love our country the way we do. And when I say that, my apologies go to liberals, because I didn't quite see the difference in liberalism and Marxism and socialism. There's a difference. There's a difference."
For "those who don't see the difference," Owens urged, "please look it up."
"We believe in God. We believe in capitalism. We believe in the family unit. Conservatives and liberals believe that," Owens said. "There's an ideology, if we don't recognize it, if we say it doesn't exist, it's to our detriment."
Owens said his goal "very simply is to have conversations like this to know we all do have the same end game." He also wanted Utah's House Democrats to know that "you're going to have a team that's going to hustle more than you've ever seen before, it doesn't matter what side of the aisle you're on."
"So to that point, and I do appreciate that, because now that I'm representing everyone," Owens said, laughing, "I want us to be able to have these conversations. And I want my liberal friends to know — by the way, my brother and sister are really strong liberals, we love each other — so I understand how that works, we can have these conversations. ... But toning down the rhetoric, toning down the heat, and just realizing that we all want the same end game that we'll get there eventually, OK?"
Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, then asked Owens — pointing out Owens' vote on Jan. 6 not to confirm election results — whether he'd accepted Biden "as our president."
Owens asked Stoddard if he'd read the letter he and some of his fellow members of Congress sent to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris "pledging to rise above the partisan fray & work towards meaningful change for Utah's Fourth District and Americans across the nation," as Owens described it in a Jan. 20 tweet.
Proud to join my colleagues in signing a letter to President Biden and Vice President Harris, pledging to rise above the partisan fray & work towards meaningful change for Utah's Fourth District and Americans across the nation. pic.twitter.com/0avCvwkhPX— Rep. Burgess Owens (@RepBurgessOwens) January 20, 2021
Owens said that letter was meant to state "we respect the office of the presidency, no matter who is sitting there. It doesn't matter."
But Owens also defended his Jan. 6 vote, saying that he spent 23 years in Pennsylvania.
"I know Pennsylvania. I know the laws of Pennsylvania. I know how it works when, at the end of the day, voting should be taken care of by the legislature ... not by the county clerk, not by the Supreme Court, and not by a governor. Imagine how you would feel if that right, that power was taken away from you."
Noting that Biden won by 71 points, Owens said he knew contesting the tally of electoral votes from Pennsylvania and Arizona wouldn't be enough to "upturn the election." But Owens said he and his colleagues sought to have an open conversation.
"We deserve a nation of people that are engaged and educated. I wanted that day to be one in which people had never seen, and heard these issues get talked about and a chance to tune in and listen and hear it so we can be better next time, the next election," Owens said, so that Americans "don't feel like something wrong happened."
"So yes, now I have accepted the president," Owens said. "I will stand with him on anything that is good for our state, my district and our country. I will stand against anything, just like I would a Republican, that's against those three things."
Rep. Blake Moore also visited with Utah's lawmakers on Thursday, which marked the first day Utah's congressional delegation came to Capitol Hill as they traditionally do every year near the beginning of the legislative session.
Moore talked about balancing environmental concerns and addressing the "boom and bust" of the oil and gas industries in rural Utah counties, as well as expanding internet access and remote working opportunities in rural Utah. In his meetings with Utah's House Democrats, he welcomed their input and communication on addressing those issues.
Utah's House Democrat caucus meeting was the only caucus meeting Thursday that was accessible to the public. Though the in-person meeting was open only to lawmakers, staff and congressional delegation to allow for COVID-19 social distancing, the House Democrats livestreamed a video of the meeting on their Facebook page.
We deserve a nation of people that are engaged and educated. I wanted that day to be one in which people had never seen, and heard these issues get talked about and a chance to tune in and listen and hear it so we can be better next time, the next election.
–Rep. Burgess Owens
Past years, House Republicans have allowed some of their caucus meetings to be open to the public — but this year all of the House GOP caucus meetings have been closed to media and to the public. House GOP staff have cited COVID-19 social distancing guidelines as a reason why all those caucus meetings are now closed, but they have not offered livestreaming or audio options.
Senate GOP caucus meetings have remained closed from the public for years now, long before COVID-19.
Owens' and Moore's meetings with Republican lawmakers, therefore, were entirely behind closed doors on Thursday, even though in past years congressional delegation meetings were typically open to the public.
Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, told the Deseret News in a meeting after the two visits that both meetings were "really good."
"Of course they're both new, so they primarily talked about their first few weeks there and what was going on," Vickers said. "They both talked a little bit about the scare at the Capitol and what went on there and how they were working to protect each other and protect themselves."
During the Senate GOP caucus meeting, the conversation also focused on Moore's and Owens' committee assignments and their experience getting to know people in Washington, Vickers said.
"It appears that they're both working hard to find, kind of, their niche back there and get to know people on both sides of the aisle and try to figure out what they can do and where they can fit in, and obviously that takes time," Vickers said.
Contributing: Ashley Imlay, Deseret News