Gary attributes re-election fight to school claims Teachers group says poll has Owens ahead of county executive

October 23, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The race looked to many as if it would be a landslide. The incumbent had more than 10 times the campaign contributions as his opponent. An officeholder in his job had never been beaten. His challenger lost her most recent race, four years ago for court clerk.

But even Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary acknowledged yesterday that his contest against Democrat Janet S. Owens was closer than he had predicted, and he blamed the tightness of the race on her attacking him on the emotional issue of education.

"Our polls indicate that we are ahead, but it is close," Gary said. "If it hadn't been for the education issue, this race would have been a blowout. That issue has been so badly misunderstood. And she's using that for a lot of anti-Gary rhetoric."

The Republican's comments came hours after the Maryland State Teachers Association released a poll showing that Owens was beating Gary by a 13 percent margin, with Owens having 49 percent of the vote, Gary 36 percent and 15 percent undecided.

The poll of 1,222 county voters, which was conducted from Sept. 24 to Oct. 1 by Mason-Dixon Campaign Polling & Strategy Inc. of Annapolis, was criticized as biased by Gary supporters because the executive's critics in the teachers association paid for it.

But Owens' supporters pounced on Gary's refusal to release his poll numbers as evidence he knows he's behind. They say the cocky king of county politics -- who pumped his fist with joy when he heard the little-known Owens would be his opponent -- is running scared.

The spokesman for Gary's campaign, Michael Owen, said Gary refuses to release a poll conducted last month not because it will make him look bad, but because his campaign aides are using it to devise their strategy, which they want to remain "confidential."

Gary's supporters also questioned the accuracy of the company that conducted the poll. Four years ago, Mason-Dixon said Gary was four points behind Theodore Sophocleus with three weeks left in the race, in a poll with a five-point margin of error. Gary ended up winning.

Gary's critics said the tough-talking former drapery business owner has much higher negative ratings with voters this time around, primarily because he has often criticized the Board of Education for how it spends.

"He has spent the last four years beating up on the school board and the school system, basically impugning their integrity," said Susie Jablinske, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, which has endorsed Owens. "People are very concerned about education in this county, and they don't see him as the person who will improve our schools."

The issue of education funding has been an ironic one for Gary in this race. He has increased funding for schools each of his four years in office, this past spring giving the Board of Education $20 million more than last year.

But Owens has repeatedly emphasized in her public debates that while the total dollars devoted to education have grown, the percentage of the county budget devoted to education has fallen.

John Kurpjuweit, a teacher at Severn River Middle School, said the $20 million increase Gary gave the schools this year was well below the $29 million the Board of Education needed to continue all of its programs -- requiring the schools to cut popular programs, angering teachers and parents.

Helen R. Fister, chairwoman of the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee, said she thinks voters will realize Gary did the right thing by demanding that the schools be accountable for every dollar.

"Yes, the incumbent battled with the Board of Education," said Joyce Lyons Terhes, state Republican chairwoman. "But he was increasing funding for the schools, and they kept spending it on administration."

David Sheehan, Owens' campaign manager, said Owens is encouraged by the poll results. But he fears the campaign is entering a sinister phase, with Gary launching misleading TV ads and direct-mail campaigns because he's desperate.

One example is a recent mailing by the Gary camp that features an elderly woman frightened that Owens will cut funding for police. Owens has vehemently denied she will do this and has called Gary's claim a lie.

"This is absolutely outrageous garbage, and I think we will see more of it in the next 10 days," said Sheehan, Owens' husband. "Because Gary is trying to deflect attention from his own negative ratings."

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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