Volume 12, Issue 3 ~ January 15-21, 2004

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Search the Maryland General Assembly for characters, and you’ll likely wind up in the fourth-floor garret of 17-year Del. George W. Owings III, who hails from Calvert County and stands for Southern Maryland the way it used to be.

Full-sized U.S. and Maryland flags anchor the conservative Democrat’s territory to traditional American values, which the quotable, earring-sporting 58-year-old will tell you include the right to bear arms, raise and smoke tobacco and ride your motorcycle without a helmet to the racetrack for a spell at the slots.

Next to an old-fashioned tobacco basket and hands of dried, high-grade, Maryland-grown leaves displayed the way they’d be at a county fair, George W. Owings Jr. — who represented Calvert County in the House of Delegates in his day — strides through his tobacco fields in half-century old photos. Louis Goldstein, the senior Owings’ contemporary in the House and the politician we knew as Mr. Maryland — smiles from the bookshelf.

Another wall documents his service, between 1964 and 1968, in wartime Vietnam. You don’t have to look far to see where this Owings comes from, and that’s part of what’s given him a reputation as a man whose word you can take to the bank.

It’s also part of why Owings moved last year from the spacious three-room suite that’s usually a perk of leadership in the General Assembly — whip is up there in the hierarchy — to quarters the size of Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs on Privet Lane. As whip, Owings works for the speaker of the House, snapping members into line at the speaker’s command. Yet last year’s new speaker, Del. Michael Busch [Bay Weekly Interview Vol. XI, No. 3, 2003] led the defense against slots — while his whip supported them. The freedom to vote his conscience cost Owings his upscale quarters.

With this year’s General Assembly just opened and slots likely to return, Bay Weekly visited Owings as a player who knows the stakes and understands the game. Read on for his smart analysis of slots and the rival kingdoms of the capitol.

Bay Weekly At your fundraising breakfast at the Maryland Inn the other morning, you were roasted as standing for dogs, guns, motorcycles, tobacco and women.

George Owings The theme of the breakfast was jab, counter, counter jab. Senate President Mike Miller, House Speaker Michael Busch, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, myself: We were all having fun with each other.

This goes back many, many years to my coming from Calvert County, which was considered rural when I first got here, though it’s not that way anymore. One day Mike [Busch] said, ‘What is your platform?’ I said, big dogs, guns, motorcycles and tobacco. Vote Owings. And he has never forgotten that. He just thinks that is the funniest thing.

Miller added the women part. I guess that was his counter to my “how is it that I survive under Miller’s regime.” I pulled out the imaginary black book, and said ‘the Miller family leaves for Ocean City … Miller arrives at Gus and John’s.’ So when you saw that, it was just in fun. We had fun, and I raised a little sum of money.

Bay Weekly Does that mean that the big guys who contribute, the organizations that supported you at the breakfast, can count on special access to you?

George Owings The size of the check carries as much weight as no check from the folks back home carries.

Bay Weekly Your contributors are going to be sorry to hear that.

George Owings That’s the way it is. If I have to go to a corporate dinner or to a Boy Scout Eagle Event, I am going to the Boy Scout Eagle Event.

If I can help one individual get through a maze of the bureaucracy, get them from Point A to where they need to be — whether it is benefits that are rightfully theirs, workers compensation or job training — I derive the most pleasure and satisfaction in getting them to that point.

Mr. Purnell Franklin called me one day and said that I would like to see you. So I went over to the farm house on Franklin Gibson road. He said, ‘Now, I am a veteran, and I want you to promise me that you see to it that I get a military funeral.’ I made Mr. Franklin that promise.

When you send young men and women or older men and women into battle and you are asking them to sacrifice their life in defense of this country, at the very least you owe them a proper farewell. But budget cuts were such that in this state and this country, a rightfully deserved military funeral was denied to veterans.

So we put a bill in that the Maryland Guard would take over the responsibilities, and that in this state every single veteran who so desired would have a military funeral. We have done thousands and thousands since the idea became law, and one of them was Purnell Franklin’s.

Bay Weekly I think of you as a political pro — a guy who plays the game with skill and delight and anticipation of winning — rather than as an ideologue. What do you say to that characterization?

George Owings I think you give me a little too much credit by putting me on the first string, but I am happy to be there. I love my job, and I think the enthusiasm shows. I take it very seriously, but I can enjoy doing it as well.

Of course, when you enter into any legislative proposal, you do it with the expectation of carrying it through to the governor’s desk, and ultimately for his signature, where it becomes law. Otherwise, you just are just wasting a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money. Each bill drafted costs somewhere around $3,000 start to finish.

Bay Weekly You now represent most of the upper half of Calvert County, but you used to represent Southern Anne Arundel as well …

George Owings Yes, I had the four precincts in lower Anne Arundel County, which geographically speaking fit the mold of Calvert County because it was all agrarian up to 20 or 25 years ago, when the big housing boom started in Calvert County. Not even lower Anne Arundel has experienced the growth we have experienced in Calvert.

Bay Weekly Since you were appointed to the House in 1988, you’ve won every race handily.

George Owings I have been fortunate never to have primary opposition. Usually I do have formidable candidates in the general, but this time there was no opposition. There was no opposition in either the primary or the general. I think that is a good indication of the satisfaction that the constituents have with my efforts.

Bay Weekly But after the last redistricting, you had to move houses to keep your seat …

George Owings I had to get an Attorney General’s opinion on how much time I could spend in my campaign office, which happened to be my prior home, which is now my campaign headquarters anyway. He said, ‘Well if you are working hard on your election, you can spend as much time there as you need to.’

Bay Weekly What are you looking forward to as your 17th session in the Maryland House of Delegates begins?

George Owings I love the process. The process is slow moving, it is rigorous, it is exciting, it can be frustrating, but in the end, that which is supposed to happen, happens.

Once the bell rings, it is like the opening of the stock market, except that it doesn’t end at the close of the day. It runs for 90 days. When you get home in the evening, you are already thinking about not tomorrow, but two days ahead. I guess the comparison is when you are flying a prop plane, you think 50 miles ahead, but when you are flying a jet, you think 500 miles ahead. It is the difference in speeds.

Well here, you don’t go home and think about tomorrow. If you want to be on top of things, you’d better be thinking about two or three days ahead, because tomorrow is already here. Because once you get to where you are only on tomorrow, you will never catch up.

Bay Weekly Clearly, slots are going to be back on the table. Are you for or against?

George Owings I have been out front since it started.

This is just a personal observation. It is not meant to be critical of anyone, especially the speaker who gives me my job. If I need an analogy it is this: There are 30,000 or 40,000 places in this state where you can get a drink of alcohol. If you believe in temperance, if you believe in abstinence, then you will go about trying to bypass all of the places that serve alcohol. If a person is going to drink, they are going to drink.

I apply that same theory to gambling. If a person is going to gamble, they are going to gamble. Why not, then, share in money that belongs in this state in the first place, and let those who are going to gamble, continue to gamble? Those who are not, just like the non-drinker, will walk by every one of those 40,000 places and not stop. If you are a non-gambler, you won’t go there.

Why not capture that money — and it pays in the millions — that is leaving the state?

Bay Weekly You’re from the Beaches. Do you have memories?

George Owings Yes, I grew up in North Beach. The town survived on revenue that was raised in three months of the summer. So, yes. I grew up with slot machines.

Bay Weekly Are you a player yourself?

George Owings I will play slots on occasion, yes. I enjoy it. As long as you treat it for what it’s worth and for what it is, entertainment, you are okay. It does have a down side, there is no question. But then you can get addicted to cigarettes, or tobacco, you can get addicted to prescription drugs, legal items I might add, and you can certainly get hooked on illegal stuff, too. By the same token, you can get hooked on gambling. There are people who are gambling addicts, there is no question.

Bay Weekly You’ve made a smart analysis of action and reaction on slots in 2003. Will you share your thoughts with our readers?

George Owings There was a term that was coined up here, about what was happening last year. We had a brand new governor, a brand new speaker and we had a seasoned Senate president. You have three separate major forces, all converging at the same time in the same place. So we viewed this convergence as The Perfect Storm.

It was no question in the Senate. The Senate president, Mike Miller, is in charge, was in charge and will be in charge for as long as he wishes. As I said, as many times as he has been shot at — just ask the people who have shot at him, if you can find them — if you are going to shoot, you better kill him. Don’t leave him wounded.

We had a new governor, Bob Ehrlich, who had to establish himself as an independent, forceful and capable leader, as an executive who in fact was in charge. He did that.

The new speaker, Michael Busch, has 16 years experience in the Legislature as a delegate, as a former committee chair and has been in leadership for many years. Now he finds himself running the House. He also had to establish himself.

The vehicle that was picked for the showdown in the Senate side was Lynn Buhl’s nomination to head the Maryland Department of the Environment. So the Senate and the executive went head to head on that nomination. In the House, the vehicle happened to be slots, and the speaker and the executive went head to head. So each of the three, I call them players, made their mark and stood their ground.

There were wins and losses. The Senate won in the showdown over the Buhl nomination. The speaker won in the showdown on slots. And the governor won in the showdown over increased taxes; even a tax package that was passed he vetoed. He stood his ground. He honored his word. He offered up the slots bill, he held the line on taxes, there were no increases, so he did exactly what he said he was going to do. All three took a position, all three dug in and all three came out winners and losers.

Bay Weekly Now for 2004. Is this the year slots return to Maryland?

George Owings I don’t think that you will hear about slots the first week. I think the first week will be settling in for a lot of people. This is only their second session of a four-year term.

But I think slots is a major component. The Secretary of Budget and Management has already said without slots, there are going to be some major cuts, and they are going to occur in education, they are going to occur in health care delivery.

Bay Weekly And after this week?

George Owings I believe the governor will offer up a bill.

Here’s an interesting angle. The governor cannot put in his own bills. It takes the presiding officers of each house to carry the administration’s bills. So if it is introduced, the speaker has to introduce it in the House. And the president has to introduce it in the Senate.

That’s the only way they can get introduced. I was not aware of any cabinet-level positions ever being turned down by the Senate Executive Rules and Nominations Committee until they turned down Lynn Buhl last year. By the same token, I suppose that one of the presiding officers could refuse to introduce legislation. But that has never been done, either.

Bay Weekly That has never happened before?

George Owings I am not aware of that ever happening.

Bay Weekly If that waymark is not chalked up in our history, what do you predict?

George Owings Slots are no longer a virgin territory. We know where the money is suppose to go, we know how much is suppose to come in, we know the basic structure of where they are going and how many there will be. All of that is in the rear view mirror.

Bay Weekly Recap that territory for us, please.

George Owings We know how many the governor wanted in the original bill, and we know where he wanted them to go. That is 11,000 slots at three sites, at the three racetracks.

Since then there have been a whole lot of offers and things and the site visits …

Bay Weekly And what’s ahead?

George Owings What we do now is look ahead: Are we going to go there, or are we not? Let’s do it, let’s not do it, but let’s do something. We can’t just get down in the middle of the mud pit and continue to wallow. We need to get out, get clean and move on.

There will either be slots in our wake or there won’t be. But we cannot continue to dedicate all the resources, all the time, all of the effort and the frustrations. If you are anti you are just as frustrated at something not happening as are the people who are pro-gaming frustrated for lack of something happening.

Bay Weekly Do you predict we will have slots?

George Owings No, I can’t go that far.

Bay Weekly If we have slots, do you predict that they’ll be at the racetracks?

George Owings I think that they will be at the racetracks.

Those people who initially were anti slots and have changed their position, having seen the advantage now of recouping a lot of this money that is leaving us — those people switched their position based on two things: limited number of slots at racetracks only. You pass that point and some of the no-to-yes votes will move off again to no.

If there is any attempt to move slots outside the racetracks, those people who came to the center said, ‘okay you have me, but you have me only if the number is limited, and only if they are at the race tracks. If you move outside the area other than the racetracks, you lose me again.’

I have heard a lot of my colleagues say that. They don’t want gambling to begin with, but they realize the loss of revenue. I can live with slots at the racetracks, they say, but I cannot live with slots anywhere else.

Bay Weekly As the House Majority Whip, what will your role be in the debate?

George Owings In the old days, the whip was symbolic of what you did. You cracked the whip in order to get someone in line, to follow a procedure or to follow a certain vote.

There have been occasions when I have been dispatched to certain areas of the floor to simply impart to individuals that the speaker really, really wanted to see this project or that project, whatever it might be, that the delegate was hoping to carry back home, become a reality. He really wanted that to be in their bag when they went home, but he was struggling because he just couldn’t quite get there without their help on a particular vote. They understand.

Bay Weekly But on slots, you and the speaker aren’t in line …

George Owings I’ll do my job as whip. But on the tough issues, it’s always understood you’ll vote your conscience, , and this is one of those tough issues.

Bay Weekly We’ve focused on the General Assembly, because of course that’s what we think of as your workplace. But there’s more to the job that we don’t see. What goes on the rest of the year?

George Owings People like to say that serving in the legislature is a temporary part-time position, when in fact it is year round. If you just do what you are required to do, you are out four or five nights a week.

There is a difference in my sort of representation in that I am a single-member district, whereas in Annapolis, you have three at large. Miller is the senator over the whole group of three delegates in District 27, but the people in my district are my people. There is no one there to cover for me. The night before last, I was speaking at the Democratic club dinner at 6:30pm. Then I was due at North Beach Town Hall because I am the head for the volunteer group working to get the Boys and Girls Club a building. I was also due at Huntingtown United Methodist Church to speak to the people at Walnut Creek about a road issue. I was a little late, but I did all three, whereas if there were three of me each one of us could have been for the full duration in all three places. In a single-member district, you are stretched.

Bay Weekly That’s what your work is like all year long?

George Owings It is not always overlapping, but there are things that occur all year long. When Mary Sullivan, a lady over at the Beach confined to a wheel chair, when she calls with a disaster — such as was the case with Hurricane Isabel — you go to her house. You go to where the people are. You don’t ask them to come to you.

Barbi Shields contributed to this interview.

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Last updated January 15, 2004 @ 12:13am.