Glendening, Owens forge strong ties

County executive, governor benefit from give-and-take

`Working very, very closely'

She backed wage bill, hoping he'll return the favor to county

February 27, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

County Executive Janet S. Owens knew it would be tough to say no.

Not only did the request seem heartfelt, it came from the man who will largely decide how much state money will flow to Anne Arundel County next year.

So Owens this month promised Gov. Parris N. Glendening she would support his plan to raise wages for workers on some school construction projects -- even though she privately feared it could cut into repair money.

True to her word, Owens the next day wrote a letter urging the county's legislative delegation to embrace the governor's so-called prevailing-wage bill. She knew Glendening would appreciate the move -- and remember it when the $1 billion state surplus is divvied up.

When the governor says something is "singularly important" to him, Owens said in an interview last week, "I take heed."

Glendening, in a separate interview, said, "I think that type of good, positive, two-way working relationship makes my job easier and her job easier. But far more importantly, it is extremely productive for the citizens of Anne Arundel County."

Productive it is. Consider school construction funding, Owens' top priority. In her first year in office, the county's share of state aid rose from $9.3 million to $14.1 million, a nearly 52 percent jump. Only Calvert and Queen Anne's counties saw a larger percentage increase for fiscal year 2000.

During this legislative session, Anne Arundel could take home as much as $24 million for school construction, county officials say. The county also hopes to obtain additional funding for other programs, from drug treatment to rural land preservation to assistance for South County tobacco farmers converting to new crops.

Owens and Glendening both attribute the increase in government largess at least partly to their strong working relationship. The two Democrats, who share what Owens calls an "unalterable commitment to education," meet or speak often, sometimes several times a week. Owens has been known to visit Glendening at the State House to make personal appeals for money, and she has been invited to breakfast at the governor's mansion by Maryland first lady Frances Hughes Glendening.

The Owens-Glendening ties stand in contrast to Glendening's limited interaction with Republican John G. Gary, the executive from 1994 to 1998. Glendening said he and Gary "didn't have much of a relationship."

"I have talked more with Janet in the first year of her administration than I did to the prior administration for the entire four years," Glendening said, avoiding any mention of Gary's name.

One of Owens' criticisms of Gary is that he did not ask for enough state money.

Although Glendening said there was no hostility between him and Gary, it didn't help that Gary signed on as co-chairman of Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey's unsuccessful 1998 campaign for governor.

"Look, obviously there's a big difference between having someone who is supportive of you in the county executive's seat than one who, two years before the 1998 election, decides to be a chairman of the Sauerbrey for Governor campaign," said Del. Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat.

Busch, a 14-year veteran of the General Assembly, said he has noticed a significant improvement in Glendening's relationship with Arundel officials. It's not just Owens' arrival, Busch said; the emergence in 1998 of Democratic majorities on both the County Council and the legislative delegation also have contributed to the bonhomie.

In addition to the tangible gains, there has been a spirit of openness between Owens' office and the State House, both camps say.

"We are working very, very closely," Glendening said. "She calls me regularly on different things in terms of advice or how we can solve things together."

The alliance does not have deep roots. In fact, Glendening initially supported Owens' 1998 primary challenger, Diane R. Evans. He said he did so on the advice of legislators who considered Evans more likely to win.

Glendening and Owens got to know each other after the primary, and became quick allies. When she came under criticism for creating a police detail to guard her, Glendening called and said, "You have no choice; you must have executive protection."

In the wake of that flap, Frances Hughes Glendening invited Owens to the governor's mansion for breakfast.

Glendening has sought Owens' input on a number of decisions affecting the county, including judicial and school board appointments, said Carl O. Snowden, special assistant to Owens and her liaison to the governor's office.

"I know anything she really wants, he'll deliver," Snowden said.

Owens has not been shy about trying to leverage the connection for the county's benefit. Last year, she paid a visit to the State House to plead for $2.4 million as part of the "rural legacy" land preservation program. Impressed by the "personal pitch," Glendening agreed, but split the money over two years, enabling the county to begin buying 9,000 acres in the southern part of the county.

To Busch, the event underscored the change in atmosphere. "I promise you that wouldn't have happened four years ago," he said. "Gary wouldn't have made the call."

Next year's rural legacy funding has not been set, and Owens is not satisfied with $1.2 million. "Of course I'm going to ask for more," she said with a laugh.

If she still wants more from Glendening, he still has a favor or two to call in. Owens has yet to weigh in on another subject dear to Glendening: his proposal to raise teacher pay in the state by 10 percent over two years, with 8 percent of it borne by the counties.

Owens said that while she wants to see teachers earn more, she is not sure if Anne Arundel could afford paying the optional increase, especially because of the county's cap on property tax revenue. But she has not spoken against it, nor is she likely to do so.

"She said, `I'm going to try to work it out,' " Glendening said approvingly. He added that the county "will do well in our supplemental budget."

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