Owens has been seen as underdog before

In race to unseat Schaefer, Arundel chief's tougher challenge may be rival Franchot


August 30, 2006|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

People have underestimated Janet S. Owens before.

The Democratic candidate for comptroller was a little-known former Orphan's Court judge in 1998 when she jumped into the race for Anne Arundel County executive.

So lightly was Owens regarded that prominent Democrats such as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller thought their party's only chance of beating the incumbent Republican was to persuade a GOP county councilwoman to switch parties and enter the race.

Even so, Owens, running as the "real Democrat," upset Councilwoman Diane R. Evans in a close primary. Owens thrashed incumbent John G. Gary with almost 60 percent of the vote despite being outspent 5-to-1.

Now, after two terms as county executive, Owens, 62, is attempting to topple a living legend in Maryland politics: Comptroller and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

But even as Owens takes satisfaction in recent polls showing her closing in on Schaefer, Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot is waging an aggressive primary race against both -- calling himself the "only real Democrat" and portraying Owens as an ally of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

It's an argument that Owens calls "bizarre," noting her public support of Mayor Martin O'Malley for governor.

"I'm a Democrat. What the devil is he talking about?" she said on a recent morning at the Odenton MARC station, where she had come to shake hands with commuters in her home county.

In many ways, the Democratic race for comptroller has come down to an Owens vs. Franchot contest for the votes of party members who believe it's time to send the 84-year-old Schaefer into retirement because of a string of remarks that offended immigrants and women. Apart from some radio ads, Schaefer himself has made few campaign appearances, counting on his 50-year- track record of public service to hold on to enough Democratic voters to renominate him in a three-way race.

Where Franchot had been vacuuming up endorsements from liberal and activist groups, Owens has staked out the middle ground in the race. Among the issues on which she disagrees with the incumbent is his vote this year to support Ehrlich's proposed cut in the state property tax -- a move she dismissed as an election year gimmick that would worsen the state's long-term fiscal picture.

"You don't have to be a Republican to be fiscally responsible," she said.

Owens said she would model her approach to the comptroller's role on that of Louis L. Goldstein, a Democrat who held the office for four decades before his death in 1998.

If elected, she said, voters will see an end to the monologues that Schaefer frequently delivers on wide-ranging topics at the beginning of Board of Public Works meetings.

"The media probably would be bored with me," she said. "My style is just totally different from the incumbent's."

She said she would focus narrowly on the issues that concern the comptroller -- matters such as tax collection and procurement -- rather than broad policy issues.

"I would approach it issue by issue, contract by contract, not politics," she said.

Her proposed focus stands in contrast with Franchot's expansive view of the comptroller's role. The Montgomery County lawmaker has pledged to use the office to fight slot machines and deliver increased spending for school construction and women's reproductive health care spending -- matters that fit more into the governor's job description.

"I have never heard one thing from Peter about the comptroller's office," she said. If Franchot continues to campaign as he has, Owens said, she could not commit to support him if he wins the nomination. She has declined his challenges to debate, saying she would not appear at a forum without Schaefer, who has ruled out joint appearances with either rival.

Supporters say Owens also would bring skills to the job that she has honed as a woman in a leadership position.

"What she does that distinguishes her from other candidates is that she recognizes the value of the personal touch," said state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat who has endorsed Owens.

In some ways, Owens is a modern version of the type of agrarian Democrat that dominated politics in most of Maryland until recent decades. Born during World War II, she was raised on a tobacco farm in southern Anne Arundel County, where members of her family have lived since the 17th century. She still owns a farm there, where she hopes to spend time in retirement -- but not for at least eight years.

As county executive, Owens has managed a $1 billion-plus budget through some difficult economic times. She has maintained the county's sterling bond rating, but sometimes at a cost.

In 2001, she adopted a selective hiring freeze on county employees, and in 2003 she laid off 16 police officers and two clerical workers, moves that drew complaints from some.

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