Owens: 'nice' but tough Eager volunteers fuel her effort to unseat Gary

Race for county executive

Primary winner woos Democrats who backed her rival in primary

October 01, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

It's 7: 47 a.m. outside a Democratic breakfast meeting at O'Brien's restaurant on Main Street in Annapolis, and the woman called the "nice" candidate for Anne Arundel County executive is in a foul mood.

Janet Owens sees a reporter beside the door and scolds him for the lack of respect the press has shown her campaign.

Complaining that an article in that morning's newspaper gave incumbent County Executive John G. Gary too much credit for saying he will run an insult-free campaign, Owens thrusts forth a news release calling Gary a "school-yard bully."

"Civility has been a part of my campaign since day one," she says, threatening to cancel an interview scheduled for that day.

Following the Owens campaign from morning to night on a recent Friday reveals that it is more than a David-vs.-Goliath battle, pitting a Democrat who lost an election for court clerk four years ago against an incumbent Republican in a county where an incumbent executive has never been defeated.

It also reveals that she is tougher and more determined than her public image as the soft-voiced former county administrator of services for the elderly would suggest. She is backed in her quest by a zealous band of volunteers, the most outspoken of whom are union activists.

And she appears to be winning a delicate game of diplomacy aimed at attracting the support of Democratic elected officials and South County environmentalists who opposed her in the Sept. 15 primary in favor of Diane R. Evans.

The following is a journal of a day on the campaign trail with Janet Owens:

7: 50 a.m. Inside O'Brien's restaurant.

About 50 people sit in a dimly lighted back room of the restaurant, several of them packed around a table holding pitchers of free coffee and baskets of golf-ball-size blueberry muffins.

Owens, 54, is hugged and thumped on the back for her primary victory over Evans, former chairwoman of the County Council. Owens, obviously feeling ill, thanks her supporters.

She's coughing and clutching a wadded tissue, and she confides that she has been loaded up with antibiotics and vitamin C since she caught bronchitis hugging and kissing supporters the night of her victory.

"I don't have time to be sick," she says. "We only have five weeks left."

She sits at a table and barely touches her bagel as supporters stand to speak.

Cecilia Fabula, the chief negotiator for eight local chapters of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, praises Owens' administrative experience. In addition to serving director of the county's Office on Aging from 1986 to 1988, Owens was the Massachusetts assistant secretary of criminal justice from 1978 to 1983.

"I have never met anybody as nice, as caring or as credentialed as Janet Owens. She knows budgets, she is a conservative, and she is respected by senior citizens," Fabula says.

By the end of the breakfast, Owens' supporters have tossed $61.50 in change into a plastic bag on her table. It's not a big-money campaign.

10: 05 a.m. Driving south from Annapolis.

Owens climbs with volunteer Pat Aiken into Owens' white Toyota 4-Runner and barrels south on Route 2.

She's running late for the opening of a branch of the Prince George's County Federal Savings Bank, in which she owns stock.

As she speeds across the rolling farmland, she recalls what it was like growing up on a farm not far away in Bristol.

One of two daughters of tobacco farmers whose families had lived in the county since before the Civil War, she milked the cows, picked vegetables and rode her sister's horse Blackie.

"When I was in the seventh grade at Southern High School, I told the class that I wanted to be a senator," she says. "I grew up among a group of strong women from southern Anne Arundel who believed women could be anything we wanted to be."

After shaking a few hands at the bank opening on Route 260 in Calvert County, Owens cruises down winding roads to her family's farm.

Two buzzards glower from the top of an ancient red barn hung with tobacco leaves. She climbs out of her car and walks up to the white clapboard house with peeling paint.

"I love this old farm," she says. "This is why I feel so strongly that I do not want this county overdeveloped."

She says that she only manages the farm, living most of the week in a house in Millersville with her husband, David Sheehan, an attorney, and two sons, Brendan Sheehan, 18, and Christopher Sheehan, 21.

1: 20 p.m. Old South Country Club, 699 Marlboro Road in Lothian.

About 25 South County residents, mostly environmentalists, sit around a long table, sipping white wine and nibbling ham-and-cheese roll-ups.

Del. Virginia P. Clagett, an environmentalist who helped organize the lunch, stands and apologizes for the somewhat awkward circumstances. She and many of the others present backed Evans in the primary because Evans was the first to declare.

"But Janet really won it, and now we are really behind her," Clagett says. "She is going to win this county executive's race."

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