I would say early on, I was anxious about things. You lie awake at night, worrying. —Doug Owens
MIDVALE — Democratic congressional candidate Doug Owens pulled out a scrap of paper and a pen from his jacket and began making notes as longtime Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini described what she expects from a 4th District congressman.
At one point, he stopped Seghini to double-check that he's written down her statement correctly about the need for Congress to finally pass a budget so local governments can be assured of transportation and other needed federal dollars.
"You said, 'If I can't pass a budget, I'd be strung up,'" Owens read from his notes, then smiled at the mayor sitting across from him in a City Hall conference room. "I'm going to use that."
Seghini, 77, and seen as a stalwart of the Democratic Party in Utah, nodded and told Owens, "I really feel you're a possibility at making a difference" before resuming their discussion.
"He loves this. He geeks out on this," Taylor Morgan, Owens' communications director and driver during an afternoon of campaigning, said while waiting for the candidate and the mayor to finish a private talk.
When Owens returns to the car, a hybrid, he said meeting with local government leaders in the state's newest congressional district, which includes the western parts of Salt Lake and Utah counties, is one of the best parts of campaigning.
He said hearing Seghini, who has held the nonpartisan mayor's post since 1998, talk about how the dysfunction in the nation's capital is affecting road repairs, programs for the poor and other city functions, confirms a key element of his platform.
"If people just go to Washington to just spout an ideology, they're not going to be worried about real-world impacts," Owens said. "Ideology will kill us whether it comes from the left or the right."
There's also a political message to take from seeing a successful member of Utah's minority party for the first-time candidate, brought into politics by his late father, Democratic Utah congressman Wayne Owens.
While Owens' own polling has put him only a few points behind his Republican opponent, Mia Love, her polling shows the race to replace retiring Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, isn't close.
Two years ago, Love lost to Matheson by only 768 votes in the new district created by the GOP-dominated Utah Legislature after the 2010 census. But Owens said he believes voters will be willing to look beyond party once they hear his message.
Democrats get elected in Utah because "people see through the labels. They decide they can trust them. I hope people will see me that way," said Owens, an attorney who has set aside his law practice to run.
His younger brother, Steve Owens, said a lot has changed since they learned about politics firsthand by running campaigns for their father. Wayne Owens served four terms in the U.S. House but also ran for the U.S. Senate and governor.
The race Doug Owens headed for his father was Wayne Owens' bid to become governor in 1984, a race lost to Republican Norm Bangerter. Steve Owens headed his father's congressional reelection in 1990.
Steve Owens, who is his brother's campaign treasurer, said meeting voters by showing up on their doorsteps, something his father introduced to Utah in his first campaign for Congress in 1972, isn't enough anymore.
"You can't just knock on some doors and buy some TV time and you're going to get your message out," Steve Owens said. Now, he said, "a viral video online can immediately sway people."
While older Utahns remember Wayne Owens as a Democrat who worked across the aisle on issues like the Central Utah Project to develop water resources, it's not clear how much influence the connection is having on the race.
"I appeared for Doug at a senior care center recently and a lot of those people do remember my dad. And they vote, which is nice," Steve Owens said. "But they remember FDR (former President Franklin D. Roosevelt), too."
Kay Christensen, who also ran a campaign for Wayne Owens after she graduated from law school at 40 and served as his top aide for years, said Doug Owens has many of the same qualities as his father, especially how he treats people.
"Campaigns are the toughest things, people working 24-7, so much stress. That's when you see what a person's made of. In all the time I worked with Wayne, I never heard him raise his voice or show anger," she said. "Doug's the same way, just a decent person."
Christensen, who went on to work for three Salt Lake City mayors before retiring last year, defended Owens' decision to confront Love on stands she took in the last election on eliminating the U.S. Department of Education and federal student loans.
Those stands are highlighted in Owens' TV commercials and have been labeled negative campaigning by Love.
Christensen said Owens is "being true to who he is" by sticking to the issues and avoiding personal attacks. "You're not going to hear Doug say things like, 'Oh, you don't understand' or anything like that," she said.
He also has an unusual quality for a politician, "an absolute absence of arrogance, Christensen said, recalling a recent conversation where they talked about using Facebook and other social media in the race.
"This far into the campaign, it can get pretty easy to get caught up with yourself," she said, and be unwilling to pay attention to those around you. "When he asks for your advice, he is actually asking and listening."
Lawyer Lois Baar, who has worked with Owens on cases, recalled meeting him after Owens returned to work after taking time off to stay at home with his family while his wife, Cynthia, a doctor, completed her medical residency.
Owens was in his office on the phone interviewing potential nannies, Baar said, and was discussing a recipe for ceviche with one of them. "I remember thinking, who is that guy and where did he come from," she said.
The two became good friends, Baar said, often talking about his love of history, especially of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even though she does not share his faith.
They work together well on employment law cases, she said, because Owens, a graduate of Yale Law School, is not oppositional.
"Some lawyers are really difficult. They work at it and they're proud of it," she said. Owens' focus is on solving problems rather than making enemies, Baar said, noting an opposing counsel turned up at one of his fundraisers.
Baar said Owens has been eyeing a run for office for some time.
"Over the years, I think there were times when he expressed interest," she said, but then another Democrat would get into a race or Owens felt his family wasn't ready for the commitment of a campaign.
Following his meeting with the Midvale mayor, Owens said on the way to a TRAX park-and-ride lot to greet commuters heading home that he is "generally content" with how the race is going but acknowledged that wasn't how he felt initially.
"I would say early on, I was anxious about things," Owens said, comparing beginning a campaign to launching a start-up company that no one else believes in and having to sell the product. "You lie awake at night, worrying."
After a few minutes of trying unsuccessfully to engage commuters pouring out of the station, Owens gave his campaign literature to a pair of young men who offered to hand it out for him.
"Say you met this guy and he's a good guy," Owens suggested to them. "Whatever you think."
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