From humiliation to political triumph Owens' 1994 drubbing followed by stunning Anne Arundel victory

November 11, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Her mother stood beside her that miserable night four years ago at Michael's Eighth Avenue catering hall in Glen Burnie when Janet S. Owens suffered a humiliating political defeat, losing in a landslide her bid to become court clerk.

Dorothy Owens, then 71, looked at her genteel but stubborn daughter, who had spent her career as a social services administrator, and proclaimed that she was not meant for the "dirty" world of politics.

"She said, 'Never again! I never want you to get involved in a campaign again!' " Janet Owens said.

Four years later, the elder Owens did not see her daughter defy the skepticism of her family and the opposition of every county elected official in her Democratic Party to beat an incumbent Anne Arundel County executive who had five times as much campaign money. She became the first woman elected to the job and the only challenger to defeat an incumbent for the office.

Dorothy Owens was not there when her daughter won a thunderous standing ovation in the State House the day after the election. She died of a heart attack in her sleep shortly after her daughter failed in her bid to become court clerk in 1994.

What would she have thought about her daughter's landslide victory over the most powerful man in county politics?

"She would have been thrilled," said Janet Owens' husband, David Sheehan. "But she would also have been horribly mortified, because she did not have a high opinion of politicians."

Owens' supporters paint her victory as an example of how big money and incumbency don't always rule in politics. They say even underdogs such as Owens can win if they have faith in themselves and the help of their neighbors.

But Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, cautioned against reading too much into this year's elections. There were a number of freakish victories this year, Skullney said, including that of a former professional wrestler elected governor of Minnesota.

"Let us not forget that this is the year of Jesse 'The Body' Ventura," said Skullney, whose nonprofit organization lobbies for campaign-finance reform. "Before we paint too optimistic a picture here, we should realize that her story is not the norm these days. Big money remains a huge factor in elections."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said Owens' victory was not freakish.

"Janet's victory was a testament to her own perseverance and determination," said the governor. "Like many Democrats, myself included, she proved the pundits wrong who had predicted she couldn't win."

To beat Republican John G. Gary last week, Owens had to endure the abuse of the Democratic machine in northern Anne Arundel County. She said that abuse included a threat against her family by an elected official she won't identify.

The Democrats were trying to strong-arm her out of running in the primary against their candidate, former County Council Chairwoman Diane R. Evans, a former Republican whom top Democrats had recruited to their party for her name recognition.

"I was harassed, threatened, told to go no place alone," Owens said of her party. "In June, I got a call at home saying that my family was not safe. It was a real knock-down, drag-out. But I always had confidence that I could win."

That stubbornness came in part from her mother, who was such a dominant force in her daughter's life that friends kept bringing up her name on election night.

Janet Owens, 54, was born on a rolling 185-acre tobacco farm in Bristol that the family has owned since before the Civil War. The Owenses immigrated from Wales in the late 1600s and were so important in southern Anne Arundel that Owensville was named after them.

"They were old colonists, the Owenses," said the Rev. David K. Leighton, the 11th bishop of the Episcopal Church of Maryland, to which the family belongs. "They were tobacco farmers back when when tobacco farming was the lifeblood of Anne Arundel County."

Dorothy Owens was an outgoing, energetic "ball of fire" with a lively sense of humor whose daughter looked much like her, Leighton said.

Dot Owens was a Southern socialite, famous for cooking and decorating her home with flowers for 40-person banquets at Christmas and Thanksgiving. She played the ukulele and sang for her guests, acquaintances said.

She was also a strong-willed woman who didn't believe in self-pity. Once, one of her best friends, neighbor Leola Collinson, suffered a stroke and didn't feel up to a game of cards. Dot Owens came down hard on her.

"She said, 'Leola, get up and go! Let's play bridge. You can't feel sorry for yourself,' " Janet Owens recalled. "And Leola said, 'For God's sake, Dot! I've had a stroke!' "

Until her 50s, Dot Owens spent most of her time raising her daughters, Janet and Jennifer, with her husband, Kenneth.

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