Gary is upset by Owens School funding was decisive issue in David-Goliath contest

First woman executive

Teachers backed Owens

money favored incumbent

Election 1998

November 04, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Laura Sullivan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan contributed to this article.

In an historic upset of Anne Arundel County's most powerful politician, Democrat Janet S. Owens beat Republican County Executive John G. Gary to become the first challenger to defeat an incumbent in that office and the first woman to hold the job.

Backed by a teachers union infuriated that Gary forced the school board to make spending cuts this spring despite a budget surplus of $22 million, Owens ran an aggressive campaign calling Gary a "schoolyard bully" who does not care about public schools.

Gary, a 54-year-old former drapery business owner dubbed "King John" for his power over local government, lost despite record-setting campaign fund -- $648,000 -- that was nearly five times the size of his opponent's.

The loss was all the more jarring to local Republicans because Owens was almost unknown before this fall. She had lost a 1994 election for court clerk and was snubbed by her own party's leaders before this year's primary.

Gary was so cocky about beating Owens that he pumped his fist with joy when he learned on primary night that he would be facing her instead of her better-known opponent, former County Council Chairman Diane R. Evans.

"I never expected this kind of a win," Owens said at a jubilant victory party at Baldwin Hall in Millersville last night. "It's been a really long, hard road from the beginning. But I always felt that this was my time."

More than 100 supporters, including many teachers and teen-agers, began packing the meeting room on Millersville Road just after 8 p.m. They cheered every time a precinct result came in. Their candidate maintained a steady 60 percent lead throughout the evening.

When Owens strode into the hall at about 9: 20 p.m., she received a huge hug from her husband and campaign manager, David Sheehan. Owens circled the room, receiving kisses and embraces and repeating: "We did it! We did it!"

A few minutes later, she took the stage to give her victory speech as her supporters cheered, "Janet! Janet! Janet!" She thanked her supporters, especially the teachers who turned out in force to elect her.

"I think the people of Anne Arundel County decided overwhelmingly to take back our county," said the 54-year-old former director of county services for the elderly. "I want to thank everyone from the north county and central county for electing a woman from south county."

The mood was grim and angry at Gary's party in the Annapolis Holiday Inn off Riva Road. Tipping wine glasses and imported beer bottles, Gary's supporters hung on long into the evening staring at a screen conspicuously lacking numbers for Gary's race -- although the campaign workers were projecting figures for every other race in the state.

Gary holed up in a hotel room for 90 minutes as the bad news trickled in and his guests waited downstairs. He slammed the door in one visitor's face.

"This is anxiety at its worst," he said.

Later, he went downstairs to give a sometimes defiant concession speech. "We wish Owens the best. She's going to find out how difficult this job is, and how difficult it is to be nice."

Gary said that it is time for younger Republicans to take his place and that he does not plan to run for office again.

"I leave this office with my head high and proud for what I have done for Anne Arundel County," Gary said. "I was willing to take on the school system head-on, and if I have paid the price for that, I am still not sorry."

The election featured candidates who were in many ways opposites: Gary, 54, is the hard-nosed son of a Navy man from northern county. Owens is the polished daughter of rural landowners who have owned a tobacco farm in south county since before the Civil War.

Gary dropped out of college to work in an interior-design firm. Owens completed all but her dissertation for a doctorate in educational administration and became the highest ranking woman in Massachusetts government.

Gary married at 18, at one point living in a trailer with his wife, who'd been his best friend since middle school. Owens at age 32 married an attorney who became Maryland's assistant attorney general.

Gary tells stories about an adolescence spent beating up hoodlums from other neighborhoods. Owens talks about a childhood spent reading books and playing the organ for her church choir.

Gary championed construction of an auto racing stadium and huge mall. Owens preached the need to hire the brightest minds to teach in the county's schools.

Gary had his campaign headquarters in the Interstate 97 business park in Millersville. Owens coordinated operations from a grand-looking bank building off Annapolis' historic Church Circle.

Gary held fund-raisers packed with construction contractors. Owens had an army of teachers knocking on doors.

Gary blasted the schools for wasting money while doubling the size of the sheriff's department. Owens said she would boost funding for schools by squeezing the rest of county government.

Pub Date: 11/04/98

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