Owens raising more money

Executive in final term plans event in Linthicum

`I need your help once again'

Move may be setting stage for a run for higher office

Anne Arundel

March 02, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Just three months into her second term as Anne Arundel County executive, Janet S. Owens is holding a major fund-raiser, the strongest indication yet that she does not intend for her political career to end when she leaves the Arundel Center in 2006.

Owens' loyalists have been invited to the BWI Corporate Center in Linthicum on March 11 for "hors d'oeuvres, cocktails and conversation," according to the tickets. Those tickets cost either $250 or $1,000 -- the more expensive ones allow earlier entry.

"The election season is over and all the funds which you helped raise for that successful effort have been spent," Owens wrote in a Feb. 28 letter to supporters. "I need your help once again."

Despite raising more than $615,000 between January 1999 and November, the Committee to Elect Janet Owens has just $1,800 left, according to a campaign finance statement she filed Jan. 15.

With her first fund-raiser since the fall election, Owens may have an eye on a higher office. Governor Owens? State Senator Owens? It's anybody guess, but political observers say it's a sign that she intends to remain a player.

"The most obvious indication is that she certainly thinks she has a future beyond the county executive role," said Democrat Donald P. Hutchinson, a former Baltimore County executive who is president and chief executive of SunTrust Banks in Maryland. "It creates the mystery for her: What is she going to do next?"

Only this much is clear: She will not use the new money to run for county executive or a seat in Congress.

Term limits prevent Owens, 59, from seeking another four-year term as the top county official. And federal campaign finance rules prevent her from using a state campaign account to finance a run for federal office.

"Who knows what will open up," said William F. Chaney, treasurer of the Committee to Elect Janet Owens. "She doesn't know, but you've got to be prepared."

She could use the money to run for state senator, delegate or a statewide post. But the only statewide elected positions are governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general.

Without a law degree, Owens can be ruled out as a candidate for attorney general.

Just after Owens was re-elected, supporters mentioned her as a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2006. Although some politicians scoffed at the notion, others said they wouldn't discount her.

Besides financing a run for office, Owens could use the money -- as she has done -- to contribute to other campaigns and to pay for political events, such as taking legislators to dinner, said Colleen Martin-Lauer, a Baltimore-based fund-raising consultant who advises Owens.

But that alone is not a reason to raise money, Hutchinson said.

"Is it beneficial? Sure. But it's not a reason to do it," he said.

Some politicians ascended to office from positions they could return to. Kurt L. Schmoke, for example, returned to a law practice after leaving the Baltimore mayor's office. Owens, though, climbed to county executive from stints as a county administrator and an Orphans' Court judge -- jobs she is not likely to return to.

"A good politician always keeps her options open," said Martin-Lauer, who organized the March 11 fund-raiser. "A good way to keep the options open is to have money in the bank."

Martin-Lauer declined to say how many people will be attending the event.

As for the low balance in Owens' campaign account, Martin-Lauer attributed it in part to a hard-fought campaign between Owens and her Republican challenger, former Del. Phillip D. Bissett. Owens defeated him 52 percent to 48 percent.

Owens, who criticized her opponent in 1998 for accepting large campaign contributions from developers, received about 25 percent of her campaign money between her 1998 inauguration and last August from companies with ties to land development.

For several reasons, observers said, it makes sense for Owens to begin raising money early in her new term.

First, by giving off the impression that she may not fade away, she forces those around her to take her more seriously.

"It really does contribute to your ability to govern," Hutchinson said. "At some point, lame-duckery sets in. It sets in later if people think you're a contender for another public office."

Second, it's easier to raise money, politicians said, from people who know they have to deal with you as county executive for four more years, not just a year or two.

And third, it's always important to raise money as far in advance of an election as possible.

"If she is contemplating running for another office," said former state legislator and Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall, "she is doing the right thing by taking this term and building a strong financial base."

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