It was an intriguing strategy for Anne Arundel County's dwindling Democratic Party: Recruit the second most visible Republican in this increasingly conservative county to run as a Democrat against the Republican county executive.
The theory was that the Democrats might be able to sneak back to the top of the political hill by using a Republican to steal Republican voters and a Democratic label to lock in the Democratic voters.
It didn't work. Democratic voters in Tuesday's primary saw the party's recruit, Diane R. Evans, as an elephant in sheep's clothing -- a Republican trying to fool them -- and chose Janet S. Owens as their nominee, according to local political observers.
Owens, who four years ago lost a race for circuit court clerk, came out of nowhere to beat Evans, a former county council chairman who had the endorsements of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller and the entire local Democratic establishment.
Owens will face incumbent Republican John G. Gary in the general election Nov. 3.
Evans was one of four party switchers who were defeated in Tuesday's primaries. Other losers were Thomas W. Redmond Sr., the incumbent county councilman from the 3rd District and a Democrat; 7th District council challenger Patricia O'Brien Boarman, a Republican; and 30th District challenger Rocky Rosacker, a Democrat.
"All the switchers lost," said Helen Fister, chairman of the county Republican Party. "I think the voters saw that they were switching for political expediency, not because they had really switched their ideas."
A fatal flaw in the Evans plan was that the Republican voters who had elected her twice to the County Council before her switch to the Democratic Party in April were legally barred from voting for her in a Democratic primary, several local politicians said.
Owens won the support of county teachers and employee unions, the hard-core Democratic groups most likely to vote in low-turnout primaries.
Owens, former director of the county's Department of Aging, said the Democratic Party leadership had insulted its voters by trying to tell them that a longtime Republican was really a Democrat.
"I think they badly underestimated both me and the voters," said Owens, a 54-year-old Millersville resident who in 1990 was elected an Orphans' Court judge to resolve inheritance disputes.
The party leadership was "only looking at the Republican numbers, trying to bring the Republican voters over to the Democratic side in the general election. But they didn't take into account the betrayal that many Republicans felt at her switch, and they also underestimated me and my grass-roots support," she said.
Owens said she won with the support of teachers and union members frustrated with the county's Republican leadership, older people she met when she was head of the county's aging programs, and the young friends of her two sons, ages 18 and 21.
She said she celebrated her victory by staying up until 3: 45 a.m. to call friends and opening a bottle of well-aged brandy with her husband.
Owens said she wants to work with the Democratic Party leadership over the next two months to defeat Gary. She said she will continue to emphasize her themes of controlling growth, improving education and restoring trustworthiness to county government.
The Democratic leaders who opposed her should realize that their "machine" backfired, she said.
Evans refused to acknowledge Owens during public debates, directing all of her attacks at Gary.
"She was single-minded about John, and she thought that I wasn't a viable candidate," Owens said. "She thought I'd just go away, but I won't. I hope to work with all the Democrats now to defeat Mr. Gary."
Gary said Evans' party-switching tactic was ill-advised. He said he is glad to be rid of an opponent who focused much of her campaign on attacking Gary's personality and ethics.
"This campaign is going to be based on issues," Gary said. "She [Owens] is a lifelong Democrat who will be campaigning on the question of whether people want a liberal-run government vs. a conservative-run government."
Evans could not be reached for comment yesterday, but her campaign manager, Maury Chaput, said it was not a mistake for her to switch parties.
The strategy would have worked perfectly, with Evans enjoying broad support in the general election, had Owens not challenged her in the primary, Chaput said.
When the Evans camp was working out its tactics last winter, no Democrats had joined the race and Owens had said she would not run, Chaput said. As a result, her decision to enter the race caught Evans by surprise, he said.
"What I think this means is that John Gary is assured victory, and I think that is what John Gary wanted all along," Chaput said.
Pub Date: 9/17/98