County executive race is one of intrigue Owens, Evans battling in Democratic primary

August 27, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The Aug. 18 fund-raiser seemed like a routine political event: a crab-and-shrimp cocktail party at the Old South Country Club in Lothian that raised $10,000 for Janet Owens, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Anne Arundel County executive.

After the event, however, whispers of a conspiracy began to emerge from the camp of Owens' opponent in the Sept. 15 primary, Diane R. Evans.

The two are fighting to become the Democratic challenger to incumbent Republican John G. Gary on Nov. 3.

The conspiracy theorizers asked why the Democratic event was co-sponsored by Ed Wayson, an Annapolis lobbyist and friend of Gary's who supported him in the last election: Was it because Gary's boosters are trying to use Owens to knock off Evans, his more prominent opponent?

Owens' supporters are infuriated by the suggestion that their campaign is a stalking horse for Gary.

They argue that Owens is a lifelong Democrat -- unlike Evans, who recently switched parties -- and would never try to help a Republican. They say Wayson had a good reason to help Owens: He's a distant relative of hers.

But the fact that the Evans camp engaged in this gossip is indicative of the tone of this seemingly quiet primary battle. It is a cloak-and-dagger affair full of intrigue and claims of betrayal.

"It has been a fairly ghastly experience," said Owens, 54. "I just can't believe it has been so unpleasant."

Owens is a soft-voiced former county director of aging and and of housing from Lothian whose family has farmed in the south county for generations. She is also a former Orphans' Court judge.

She was the director of aging from 1985 to 1988 during the administration of Democratic County Executive O. James Lighthizer.

Evans, 49, is an outspoken former child support worker from Northampton, Mass. She has represented the Arnold area on the County Council since 1990 and was its chairwoman from 1994 through last year.

She was a lifelong Republican until she switched parties April 15 to run against Gary, a bitter foe.

Owens has tried to make Evans' switch the centerpiece of her campaign, printing brochures that proclaim Owens "A Real Democrat." She advocates shrinking classes in the public schools, controlling growth and adding services for senior citizens.

Evans describes herself as a "new Democrat" who holds centrist positions that she believes most county residents share.

"I still have the same philosophies I've always had, even though I've changed party labels," Evans said. "I'm a fiscal conservative but socially progressive, and I care about environmental issues."

Evans' top issues include protecting the Chesapeake Bay, keeping taxes low and smoothing relations between the county executive and the Board of Education, which have become confrontational.

Evans has been backed by most Democratic Party heavyweights, including state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. It is over Miller's endorsement that some of the claims of betrayal have arisen.

Owens said that last winter, as she explored the possibility of becoming the first Democrat to join then-Republican Evans in challenging Gary, Miller told her he would be glad to talk to her about the possibility after the General Assembly session ended.

Instead, Miller endorsed Evans and backed her switching parties and running as a Democrat. Owens, president of the Democratic Women of Anne Arundel County, said Miller was "vicious" in stabbing her in the back.

Miller said Owens is the one who let her party down because she told several party members that she was not going to run.

"She feels betrayed? We feel betrayed," Miller said. "By making our candidate [Evans] run in a primary, it sends the wrong message to any Republicans who think of switching over to our party."

Evans claims that Gary's supporters are involved in sneaky dealings, hurting her by boosting Owens' campaign. She mentioned the fund-raiser at the Old South Country Club.

"If Ed Wayson is such a strong supporter of John Gary's, and he is, why would he do anything to support the competition?" Evans asked. "The answer is obvious."

Wayson is a registered Democrat. He said he helped raise funds for Owens because she's a distant cousin whom he deeply respects.

"I'm supporting Janet because I've known her all my life," Wayson said. "Yes, I supported Gary in 1994. But I'll worry about the general election when we get there."

Gary's campaign treasurer, George Shenk Jr., said his organization is not trying to orchestrate support for Owens: "That's nothing we could ever plan, coordinate or even be effective in."

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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