With gap narrow, rhetoric heats up in executive race Challenger Owens, Gary spar over taxes, education and growth

November 03, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

As Anne Arundel County residents vote for county executive today, they will decide whether they want four more years of aggressive economic development policies or a challenger promising to improve the public schools.

The race between Republican incumbent John G. Gary and Democratic challenger Janet S. Owens, although at first a polite contest between a quiet underdog and the county's brash fund-raising king, has become increasingly bitter and personal over the past month.

Owens, the county's former director of services for the elderly, has repeatedly attacked Gary as a "bully" who picks fights with other county officials and who has spent the past four years browbeating the Board of Education.

Gary, a former state delegate and drapery business owner, has fought back by calling his opponent an inexperienced liberal who is "ignorant" of how county government works and likely to raise taxes.

Even Gary's supporters have acknowledged that what they first thought would be an easy victory may turn out to be a very close race.

If Owens wins, she will be the first person to beat an incumbent Anne Arundel County executive and the first woman to hold the office.

Voters also will decide today whether to maintain the County Council's 4-3 Republican majority or to return to the Democratic leadership it had until the 1990s.

Critics have called the council a rubber stamp for Gary's economic development policies. His council allies approved a fast-track zoning law change to allow a 54,000-seat auto racing stadium in Pasadena and a more than 1-million-square-foot mall west of Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

But Democrats Timothy J. Shearer in District 7 (south county) and Barbara Samorajczyk in District 6 (the Annapolis area) have been campaigning against the Gary administration's development policies, hoping to swing the majority to slow-growth Democrats.

Incumbents in these districts, Republicans John J. Klocko III and William C. Mulford II, argue that they have done a good job controlling growth by helping to pass in 1997 a long-term land-use policy designed to protect the county's undeveloped land.

During their final debate Thursday night, Gary and Owens traded barbs, not only on growth but on education and taxes as well.

Gary opened his televised address at Anne Arundel Community College by boasting of his successes in economic development. He said he helped create 14,000 new jobs and keep the unemployment rate at the lowest level in a decade.

Gary said he hired 101 more police officers, tripled the size of the sheriff's office and built a jail and courthouse -- all without raising the county's income taxes.

"We've had a great four years," Gary said. "Our economy is strong, job creation is working, crime continues to fall and our taxes are the lowest in central Maryland."

Gary said his contributions to county schools have been overlooked in the campaign, with the county teachers' association campaigning hard to have him thrown out of office.

He said he has helped the county pay for 289 more teachers, doubled the amount of money spent on textbooks and poured $170 million into school construction. He promised he would "provide record levels of funding for education" if re-elected.

Owens returned to a theme she has repeated during the campaign, saying that Gary has reduced the percentage of county money spent on education from 47 to 43 percent over his four-year terms and "made a mess of public education."

She said that Gary's refusal to give the Board of Education more money this spring forced it to cut a popular program for gifted and talented students, and to miss a recruiting cycle to hire the best new teachers.

Owens also said that Gary had allowed unchecked development to damage the county's open spaces. She said she would do more to protect the county's environment while attracting economic development with high-paying jobs.

Most pointedly, however, she attacked Gary's leadership style, saying he is a "bully" who has launched unfounded attacks on other county officials and who listens mostly to those who donate money to his campaign.

"My record shows that I believe in partnerships, not hammers. I insist on an open-door policy for all, not just those who can afford hefty campaign contributions," Owens said. "I believe that government must be accountable at all levels."

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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