Past looms large for Owens and Gary Challenger described as a peacemaker who can get job done

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

Janet S. Owens strides out of her more than a century-old farmhouse in Bristol, moving past a field of drying corn stalks and an oak with a rope swing.

She takes her guest to a barn with gaps between its boards and leathery clusters of tobacco leaves dangling from the rafters like bats.

"See, this tobacco is already cured. It's beautiful," says the 54-year-old Democratic candidate for Anne Arundel County executive.

Asked how she feels about raising a crop that causes cancer, Owens calmly replies that she doesn't raise it herself. She leases part of her 60-acre farm to an 81-year-old man who's been a tenant tobacco farmer for decades.

"No, I'm very proud of this. This is the tradition that raised me. It's a dying way of life," Owens said. "And as long as he wants to raise tobacco here, I'm going to let him. He's been doing it all his life."

It's unusual to find a candidate in a rapidly suburbanizing area taking time out of a hard-driving campaign to admire the curing of tobacco leaves. But this is only one of the complexities of Owens and her unlikely crusade.

A former county director of services for the elderly who four years ago lost a race for court clerk, Owens has run such a strong campaign that even appointees of her powerful opponent are joking they might soon lose their jobs.

A soft-spoken woman whom co-workers call a conciliator and peacemaker, Owens says she's become hardened to difficult tasks like firing employees.

A farmer's daughter who frequently talks about her lifelong ties to the south county, Owens worked for more than a decade in Massachusetts, serving as the second-highest-ranking official in charge of that state's prisons.

Owens faces Republican County Executive John G. Gary in Tuesday's election. It's a contest that has been described as pro-education Democrat against a tax-conscious, pro-business Republican.

But those who know Owens say she can't easily be categorized.

"Sometimes she's depicted as Snow White. But she can be tough, real tough," said Rosemarie Church, who served as the county community services director during the 1980s when Owens was head of the county departments of housing and aging.

Stella Benesch, who worked under Owens when she was director of the office of aging from 1986 to 1988, said that Owens' style is to work cooperatively with people and always remain polite -- but also to get what she wants.

"She's gentle and she's kind, but she's also thorough and definite. She knows what she has to do, and she knows how to do it," said Benesch, 80, a Glen Burnie resident who headed an outreach program for senior citizens.

Owens has a reserved, cautious demeanor and is clearly averse to bragging about her family's centuries-long history in south county.

Owensville is named after her family, which arrived from Wales in the late 1600s.

The eldest of two daughters of Kenneth and Dorothy Owens, she grew up on what was then a 185-acre farm where tobacco was the cash crop. The family also grew corn and wheat and raised livestock.

She recalls when Hurricane Hazel hit the farm in the mid-1950s, smashing the barn and scattering a season's worth of tobacco leaves. It was a terrible financial blow to the family.

"Frost, drought, hurricanes -- it's a tough life," says Owens. "I swore I'd never marry a farmer, because I didn't want to be dependent on the weather."

After graduating from Hannah Moore Academy in Reisterstown, Owens attended the University of North Carolina for a year and finished her bachelor's degree in sociology at George Washington University in 1966.

She met her husband, attorney David Sheehan, in 1971, when she was studying for a doctorate in educational administration at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

They married under an oak tree on the Owens farm, where her grandparents repeated their vows in 1896. Janet and David have two sons, Brendan, 18, and Christopher, 21. The family lives most of the year in a second home in Millersville.

Owens did not finish her dissertation, but she went on to serve as an analyst for the university's Institute for Governmental Services, which provides research and information for local governments.

From 1975 to 1978, Owens worked as the director of manpower, development and training for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, overseeing personnel matters for about 19,000 employees.

She served as the Massachusetts assistant secretary for criminal justice, which oversees that state's prisons and probation and parole programs, from 1978 to 1983.

Owens and her family moved to Anne Arundel County in 1983 so that she could be closer to her relatives and so that her husband could take a job as an assistant attorney general.

County Executive O. James Lighthizer named Owens director of the county housing authority in 1985 and the next year appointed her director of the department of aging, a position she held until 1988.

Owens was elected as a county orphans' court judge in 1990, hearing inheritance disputes for four years.

She ran for court clerk in 1994 and lost -- something that Owens blames on a Republican landslide that year.

Lighthizer described his former employee as a cooperative, soft-spoken moderate who knows how to manage bureaucracies.

He praised her work as head of the county housing authority. "It was pretty messed up when she got there. The budget was screwed up and there were some mini-scandals going on. She was an honest administrator, and that cured a lot of ills. She got it back on track."

Pub Date: 11/01/98

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