Owens' 2nd bid aided by builders

25% of funds from firms with ties to development

$503,000 in campaign treasury

Arundel official opposed such gifts to rival in 1998

August 18, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, who campaigned four years ago against big-dollar campaign contributions from developers, has collected tens of thousands of dollars from home builders and building contractors to finance her re-election bid.

An analysis of Owens' campaign finance records by The Sun shows that about 25 percent of the donations that the Millersville Democrat has banked since her December 1998 inauguration has come from firms with ties to land development. That amounts to about $135,000 of Owens' $503,000 campaign treasury.

"It's all the same folks who gave me money the last election," said former County Executive John G. Gary, who was defeated by Owens in 1998. "It shows that there is a degree of hypocrisy here when she criticized me for doing it, and now she is doing the exact same thing. What has changed?"

Major contributors to Owens' 2002 campaign include home builder William F. Utz of Severna Park, who with his son contributed $7,500, and the Mills Corp. of Arlington, Va., which manages Arundel Mills mall in Hanover, gave $4,700.

And though Owens has received many donations from individuals, nine of the top 10 contributors to her re-election campaign are developers.

"Is that a surprise?" said Nancy Wright, president of the Broadneck Federation, which opposes an Owens-backed plan to transfer the former David Taylor Research Center near Annapolis to private developers for makeover as an office park. "She said she was going to curb growth, but we haven't seen it."

Owens - who was attending the annual Maryland Association of Counties conference last week in Ocean City - did not return phone calls seeking comment.

But her campaign spokesman, Bob DiPietro, said nothing has changed except that Owens is much better known, especially among business-minded individuals who want the county's economic engine to remain strong.

"The fact that she has received money from developers means that a segment of the business community likes what she has done and wants her to continue doing it," DiPietro said. "Just because they are developers doesn't mean they are enemies of the state."

Finance reports

Campaign finance reports released last week show that Owens is well-positioned for a fall race against one of two potential Republican challengers: former Del. Phillip D. Bissett of Mayo or teacher Tom Angelis of Davidsonville. Bissett has raised about $60,000; Angelis has raised $6,300, including $1,500 in personal and family loans.

Owens' fund-raising dominance represents a major change from 1998. With many in the business community backing other candidates, she financed one-fifth of her campaign that year. Then, she questioned the pace of county growth and criticized Gary for trading open pastures and woodlands for drywall and asphalt.

Once in office, however, Owens made a great effort to make peace with major developers. At the time, she said the perception was that she was anti-growth, which she added was not true.

Since then, Owens' popularity among developers and those in construction-related trades has improved.

DiPietro denies any quid pro quo between the Owens campaign and developers whose contributions will enable her to advertise extensively in newspapers and on television.

"It's a very unfair perception to assume that because someone writes a check for a candidate they expect something in return," DiPietro said.

Republicans who hope to unseat Owens are more skeptical.

"She came in as a no-growth candidate and now 25 percent of her money is from developers," said Angelis, who has not received any developer contributions. "Is she influenced by it? I'm sure she is. No one gives you all that money and doesn't expect at least access."

Bissett blamed Owens for failing to come up with comprehensive land preservation and economic development plans and for allowing developers to build projects without the necessary infrastructure.

"My concern is that there is no plan in place and if that is the scenario, then it is ripe for questions," said Bissett, whose campaign also has received contributions from developers and builders, though not nearly as many as Owens.

Bissett's contributors include Reliable Contracting Co. of Millersville, $400; Dirks Construction Inc. of Davidsonville, $100; and J&A Builders of Annapolis, $250.

Reason for giving

Big-dollar contributors say the reason they have given to Owens' campaign is because they agree with her political philosophy and her style of governance, not because they are gaining an unfair advantage.

"I think Janet Owens has been business-friendly in a way that jibes with the way I think business-friendly should translate," said George Maloney, the owner of Helix Construction Services Inc. of Severna Park. Maloney has written checks totaling $3,000 to the Owens campaign during the past four years.

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