Owens' career marked by surprises

After upset 8 years ago, Arundel executive braces for unexpected halt in political career

December 03, 2006|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

When Janet S. Owens was sworn in as Anne Arundel County executive eight years ago, she stressed that her ancestors settled in the county 350 years ago and that she was "very proud to be the first woman to take this oath."

As she marks her last full day in office today, the 62-year-old Owens acknowledges that she has mixed feelings about leaving the top post in her fast-growing home county.

When a well-wisher recently greeted her with flowers and told her, "You should be so proud," the moderate Democrat says she responded: "I am, but you always want to do more."

After winning twice in a Republican-trending county, Owens expected to be able to do more -- as a congresswoman or state comptroller. But she passed on a promising bid for an open congressional seat to challenge Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, then finished second in a three-way Democratic primary to state Del. Peter Franchot of Montgomery County, losing by 15,000 votes.

In that campaign, Franchot called her the "Queen of Sprawl" -- a phrase used previously by some environmental groups -- and Schaefer mocked her appearance and accused her of making an issue of his age.

The so-called "nice lady" of Anne Arundel was taken aback, and she clearly is not leaving office as she had planned.

Owens' frustration appeared to bubble over during a recent interview with a Sun reporter, which she ended after less than 10 minutes when she was asked whether a developer who had contributed to her campaign received preferential treatment.

"I'm not talking about this [expletive]," said Owens, who tapped out her cigarette in an Annapolis coffee shop and walked out.

Republican John R. Leopold will be sworn as the new county executive tomorrow morning.

Political upset

Owens surprised political observers in 1998 when she unseated the Republican county executive, John G. Gary. The outspoken Gary had clashed with the school system, and Owens emerged after serving in a state-appointed job in Massachusetts and as Anne Arundel's aging and housing authority director and an elected Orphan's Court judge.

But she succeeded in the county of 500,000 by playing up her roots as the daughter of a southern Anne Arundel tobacco farmer, as well as her fiscal discipline.

With the county facing financial difficulties when she took office, Owens moved quickly to boost the county's commercial tax base, about 17 percent at the time. She embraced the proposed Arundel Mills mall, which she had opposed as a candidate. She successfully pushed to redevelop the site of a former shopping mall off U.S. 50 near Annapolis, though critics said that the project received inadequate county review.

She also promoted her vision -- now being realized -- of a high-tech corridor near Fort Meade and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. She calls it the "Gold Coast."

More recently, she has concentrated on preparing the county for a huge expansion of Fort Meade that is expected to bring thousands of new public- and private-sector jobs and is also likely to strain the county's finances, roads and schools.

Her supporters point out that the commercial tax base now stands at about 20 percent, the county has a $43 million rainy-day fund and Anne Arundel has the highest bond rating of any tax-capped U.S. jurisdiction. Meanwhile, the county has spent more than $400 million to fix and replace aging schools.

She leaves, though, at a time when the county faces serious challenges. At least 10 union contracts will come up for review, the county school system faces a $1.5 billion maintenance backlog and county revenue from real estate taxes might decline. After submitting her final budget in May, she said her successor might need to raise income taxes.

"When you put it all together, there is a whole lot of pressure on the next county executive," said Dan Nataf, head of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.

When Owens first ran for county executive in 1998, she campaigned against big campaign contributions from developers. In her 2002 run, however, she took in tens of thousands -- or about one-fourth of her campaign treasury -- from homebuilders and building contractors.

She dismissed accusations that she has favored developers.

"I think the allegation that I am so pro-growth, that I have been perceived that way, some of that comes from the editorial board of The Sun and some of that comes from really extreme environmentalists, who consistently refuse what in fact was my record," Owens said.

`Held her ground'

Early on, Owens noted, she frustrated developers by denying homebuilding waivers in areas where schools were crowded, shutting down most residential development. She feared that decision would land the county in federal court.

"That, she has held her ground on," Nataf said.

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