Owens rejects joining Senate race, weighs bid for Cardin's seat

Anne Arundel executive says U.S. House `makes a lot of sense'

September 05, 2005|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

As she enters her final 15 months as Anne Arundel County executive, Janet S. Owens faces days of decision.

Unable to seek re-election because of term limits, the 61-year-old Democrat has been mentioned as a potential candidate for everything from the U.S. Senate to lieutenant governor on a ticket with Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

But during an interview last week at an Annapolis coffee shop, Owens said she has decided not to join a crowded Senate race that includes Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume.

Rather, she said, she is weighing several options, including a bid for Cardin's seat in the 3rd Congressional District, where Anne Arundel residents make up a third of the population. The Democratic-leaning district also covers parts of Baltimore County and City, as well as a sliver of Howard County.

The congressional seat "makes a lot of sense," said Owens, who has twice won in a growing GOP stronghold. "I feel like I know the district well."

Owens might be close to forming an exploratory committee for a congressional race, sources close to her say. "We are working on that," she said.

Half-jokingly referring to her "biological clock," Owens said she needs to make a decision by this fall. "I know that I'm running out of time," she said.

Owens, a South County native who surprised many when she won a hotly contested primary in 1998 and then unseated Republican John G. Gary to become Anne Arundel's first female county executive, has made clear that the end of her second term in late 2006 won't be the end of her political career.

Owens, a former director of the county Department of Aging and a judge of the Orphans' Court, raised nearly $150,000 in political contributions last year, and has been busy this summer attending events such as a farmers' market opening, a golf course dedication and gatherings promoting Fort Meade's future.

In a suburban county where voters overwhelmingly backed Ehrlich and President Bush, Owens has stayed close to the middle of the road. She remained low-key during the 2002 governor's race (and later spoke at Ehrlich's inauguration) and has focused on expanding economic development in areas such as Parole and around Fort Meade and the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. She calls the latter, a corridor of high-tech and defense industry businesses, her "Gold Coast."

She's been criticized by some for her ties to the development community, which contributed tens of thousands of dollars to her 2002 campaign.

Owens said she greatly enjoys her executive position, in which she oversee the day-to-day operations of a county government that serves more than 500,000 residents. She wondered how she would handle the largely behind-the-scenes role as a legislator, likely in the minority party.

"Could I go to Washington and sit all day?" she said. "How would it be being a junior member of Congress?"

Owens has long wanted to run for state comptroller - but only if Democrat William Donald Schaefer decides against running for a third term.

Last month, The Capital newspaper of Annapolis reported that aides to Ehrlich were contacting local Republicans about adding Owens to the ticket should Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele run for the seat of retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

Owens said Ehrlich has not asked her about the potential job, although she noted their good relationship. The two appeared together Friday at a news conference regarding Maryland's contributions to Southern states hit by Hurricane Katrina.

She played down talk of switching parties, noting the complications that such a decision would bring. But she was quick to praise Ehrlich and made a point of mentioning his Cabinet's bipartisan makeup.

Owens has mentioned publicly in recent months that in keeping her political options open, she considered the U.S. Senate a possibility.

But, she said last week, "I have sort of given up on the Senate."

Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said he thought Owens could emerge as a legitimate candidate for Cardin's House seat.

He said Owens' name recognition in Anne Arundel would position her "to get a pretty good share of the county's 3rd District vote" in a Democratic primary.

And that vote might be splintered by an increasingly crowded field of Democratic candidates, including veteran state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger of Baltimore County; former Baltimore City Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson; and Anne Arundel County Councilman Bill D. Burlison, a former Missouri congressman. Del. Neil F. Quinter of Howard County has also said he would run, but he has not formally announced his candidacy.

Phillip D. Bissett, a former Republican delegate who narrowly lost to Owens in the 2002 county executive race, said that Owens would probably benefit from the "fair amount of moderate voters" in western sections of Anne Arundel.

But Bissett, considered a close ally of the Ehrlich administration, discounted speculation that the governor would consider Owens as a running mate. He said news that she might be considered "brought the Republican base in Anne Arundel County up in arms."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat who represents Maryland's 2nd District, agreed with Owens that no matter what decision she makes, she should do it soon. A former Baltimore County executive, Ruppersberger said that raising money for a federal campaign is more time-consuming, in part because of federal campaign contribution limits.

"Janet has shown she's capable of raising money," Ruppersberger said, adding that she has greater name recognition than the other declared candidates for Congress. "She will do well in whatever she decides to do."

But, he added, "You have to really want it."

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