GOP chooses Owens as speaker

Democratic county leader to address audience at inauguration of governor

A first for any Arundel official

January 14, 2003|By Lynn Anderson and Ryan Davis | Lynn Anderson and Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Democrat Janet S. Owens, Anne Arundel County's top elected official, will address her largest audience yet as a featured speaker at Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s televised inauguration tomorrow.

Republican Ehrlich's choice of Owens over other county executives to appear on live television statewide points to her bridge-building abilities and rising-star status, political observers said yesterday.

Ehrlich "is working real hard at getting consensus builders, and she can be a big help with the Robeys and Duncans," said Del. Theodore J. Sophocleus, a Linthicum Democrat, referring to Howard County Executive James N. Robey and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Democrats who meet regularly with Owens to discuss regional issues.

Through a spokeswoman, Owens declined to comment yesterday, and no one from Ehrlich's transition team responded to phone calls seeking comment.

But some observers said Owens -- whose brief remarks will be made outside the State House -- is reaping her political reward.

Owens never endorsed departing Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's bid against Ehrlich. Robey and Duncan endorsed Townsend.

Also, Owens wanted to win the votes of conservatives in her Republican-leaning county. Ehrlich won 65 percent of votes in Anne Arundel County.

"It's highly significant that she is doing that, and it's also very appropriate," said Owens political appointee and Cabinet member Carl O. Snowden, who recently has been speaking of his boss as a potential candidate for governor, lieutenant governor, or U.S. senator. "This is, of course, a county that [Ehrlich] won."

Snowden said that Owens' selection to participate in the inauguration is a "good omen" for the county executive and for the county. "I think you'll see more of her in different formats," he said.

Owens' staff members are focused on drumming up opportunities for her to speak before committees during the General Assembly session. The county executive is looking for issues such as affordable housing and farmland preservation that will take her beyond county borders.

Observers said that Ehrlich and Owens are in the same boat -- she oversees a politically conservative county, he will manage a Democratic state -- and that her participation, although small, symbolizes a growing bond between the two. Both have had to reach out to members of the opposing party.

"They are trying to hedge their bets," said Dan Nataf, director of Anne Arundel Community College's Center for the Study of Local Issues. "Neither of them can just go and run the show, and so they are reaching out to each other. He may hope that she will be able to provide some basis of support for controversial things. ... And if she can do anything to keep the [state funding] spigot turned on, why not?"

Never before has an Anne Arundel County elected official been selected to play such a visible role in the swearing-in of a Maryland governor.

"It shows that [Ehrlich] has respect for her," said Owens' campaign treasurer and longtime supporter William F. Chaney.

After Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski -- and with Townsend on her way out -- Owens is among the most powerful women in state politics. She is friendly with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and is getting to know players in the Ehrlich camp, including Paul F. Schurick, Ehrlich's campaign spokesman, who has helped Owens with key introductions.

Said Chaney of his longtime friend Owens: "She knows Governor-elect Ehrlich, and I'm sure she is planning to work well with him and he with her."

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