Delegate Joe Owens the State House's `Abominable No Man'

May 26, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith

IN THE Maryland State House, they called him the Abominable No Man. And Killer Joe.

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in the 1970s and 1980s, Joseph E. Owens was the designated spiker of half-cooked legislation.

He relished his role, disdaining what he called "60 Minutes" bills -- legislation dashed off in reaction to Sunday evening exposes and sob stories.

At a time in U.S. history when social and political movements were challenging "the system," Mr. Owens happily stood in their path.

Over the last 12 of the 16 years he spent in Annapolis, Mr. Owens -- who died last week at 81 -- became a pillar of the General Assembly or the scourge of progressive reform, depending on your point of view.

A somewhat impish man who delighted in frustrating zealots, Mr. Owens was an implacable foe of legislation driven more by emotion than careful consideration.

"We knew," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a former House speaker, "that we could give him a bill or resolution that should not be on the House floor [where popular sentiment might overwhelm good judgment] and Joe could keep it in committee."

Back then, ill-considered ideas were coming from every point on the spectrum, Mr. Cardin said.

"We were in that time when some wanted to execute people for jaywalking," Mr. Cardin said. Mr. Owens "stood as the single person to stop that sort of legislation."

At the same time, Mr. Owens fostered a tradition of intense debate -- or bullying opposition, again according to your viewpoint. New members aspired to uphold Mr. Owens' intellectual standards and consideration of legislative rules -- even after he departed in 1986.

One of Mr. Owens' enduring guidelines: "If you have any doubts, kill the bill. The state of Maryland has survived as a democracy for 300 years. We can get along one more year without this change."

His aggressive enforcement of this thinking was deplored often by those who appeared before him. He always questioned intensely and, on occasion, spoke too harshly.

His foes remember him well.

One of those who battled Mr. Owens was Cindi Lamb, a founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

She all but broke into Mr. Owens' office once in the early 1980s, demanding his attention. "I felt a great deal of angst toward him, putting it lightly," she said.

Time has tempered her view. "Now that all these years have gone by and I've gotten involved in so many community activities, I can see where someone like Mr. Owens lends balance. I couldn't see it then but I do now," she said.

Mr. Owens might have been pleased by Ms. Lamb's current assessment. But he was not seeking agreement. He thought it a duty to exercise his best judgment -- and to leave office gracefully if a majority of voters in his Rockville-Wheaton-Silver Spring district disagreed with him. They did in 1986, when he failed to win a fifth term by 222 votes.

It was said that he often neglected to answer his constituent mail -- or even to read it. He knew what he thought. At legislative hearings, he endured more experts on more subjects than even his demanding Montgomery County constituents might have required.

A veteran of World War II, he lost part of two fingers and won a Purple Heart and Silver and Bronze stars. Mr. Owens knew what he was fighting for: the rule of law, the legislative process, personal integrity.

In his own quirky, independent way, he went on fighting for them all his life.

C. Fraser Smith, a Sun reporter, has covered the Maryland legislature since 1978.

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