Husband's political role questioned in Arundel

Executive Owens' spouse wasn't elected, critics say

July 03, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

In her bid for re-election, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens is relying on David M. Sheehan, her husband and chief political adviser, to mount a strong campaign.

But Sheehan hasn't limited himself to campaign politics. And critics say that Sheehan, a Baltimore lawyer who has never held elective office, has played too big a role in county government, serving as far more than a supportive spouse.

"He is one of her biggest assets but also one of her worst Achilles' heels in the sense the people are shooting at him and saying that he is running government," said Atwood Barry Tate, a Republican who served as counsel to the County Council from 1982 to 2001. "People say [it's like] they didn't elect her, they elected him."

Since Owens became county executive in December 1998, Sheehan has exerted his influence in many ways:

According to a former county personnel director, Sheehan called the shots during labor negotiations in 1999 and 2000. Sheehan's firm had previously handled the county's labor negotiations.

Former county employees say Sheehan took an active role in compiling county budgets, meeting with council members and department heads to pinpoint costs.

During County Council meetings, Sheehan reportedly phoned council members to lobby on legislation important to his wife's administration.

A former law partner says Sheehan spent too much time working on county business and that they eventually parted ways.

"David was absolutely consumed with county business," said Baltimore attorney Frank Kollman, who worked with Sheehan for 13 years until late last year. "I know that county business was the most important thing in his life the last few years he was here. I warned him not to get seduced by politics, but he loves this stuff."

Sheehan, 58, says his role is restricted to campaign manager and doting husband.

"I continue to hold the belief that my wife is the best person for the job," he said in a phone interview yesterday. "And I will continue to support her and help her keep that job."

Owens, 58, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Critics say that Sheehan's participation in county government is inappropriate, especially because he is not an elected official accountable to the public. But those who defend Sheehan say he is a protective spouse who wants to shield Owens from political pitfalls.

A key member of her administrative Cabinet, Carl O. Snowden, chalked up accusations that Sheehan's role is overly active to "pure politics."

"There is also a whiff of sexism to it," said Snowden, an assistant to Owens who works in the county's communications department. "There are people out there who would argue that a woman can't run the county government, and that is just poppycock."

Owens is Anne Arundel's first female county executive.

The idea that political spouses can be a source of tension is nothing new.

The Clinton administration drew fire because of the outspokenness of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. In state political circles, complaints were heard about the influence of Jennifer Crawford, an aide to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, in the months before their marriage last January.

Sheehan and Owens met at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1971. He was a young attorney who'd recently returned from a stint with the Peace Corps in South America; she was a doctoral student in educational administration.

Not long after they were married on the Owens family farm in Bristol in 1976, Sheehan became chief legal counsel for Massachusetts' newly minted Department of Social Services. Owens worked as director of manpower for the state Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation and later served as assistant secretary for criminal justice.

When the couple and their two sons - Christopher and Brendan, now 24 and 21 - moved to Anne Arundel in 1983, they settled in Millersville.

Owens took a job at the county's Housing Authority in 1985 under then-County Executive O. James Lighthizer, who eventually appointed her director of the Department of Aging. Sheehan worked in the Maryland attorney general's office for about three years and then worked briefly with Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos before landing at another law firm in the city, Blum Yumkis. Two years later, he left the firm to join Kollman.

Owens, a Democrat, was elected as a county orphans' court judge in 1990 and, as such, heard inheritance disputes for four years. She ran unsuccessfully for court clerk in 1994.

After Owens defeated incumbent Republican John G. Gary in 1998, Kollman said, Sheehan began to receive detailed county budget information at his Baltimore office. Sheehan spent much of his work day on the telephone with county department heads. Kollman said Sheehan's computer file "County Executive Directory" included budget information and took up so much memory in the main computer network that it had to be moved to a backup.

Kollman said that a "great chunk of calls [Sheehan] was getting were from county people."

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