NBT Campaign '98 Special
The Final, Frantic Days
of John vs. Janet
Can "Big John" Gary hold off surprise challenger Janet Owens in the A.A. County Exec's Race?
In revealing interviews, they present their cases.
Republican John Gary is seeking his second term as Anne Arundel county executive. A man both truculent and sensitive, Gary has been criticized for his autocratic manner and his decisions. He's perennially at war with the school board, and often at odds with the county council.
Whether or not Gary is reelected, his influence will guide Anne Arundel County into the 21st century; the county's master plan for the next 25 years was composed on his watch. The drafting of the plan was public and tumultuous, with many of the diverse interests in the large county indignant at perceived slights.
Nonetheless, Anne Arundel County's general development plan was honored this month by planning professionals as the best in Maryland. "Moving beyond the traditional land-use kinds of things, it brought in the environment education recreation. It went into what makes a good community and looked at how you should meet those goals," said Pat Kellar, president of the Maryland Chapter of the American Planning Association.
From whatever angle you view Gary, you see contradiction. Lambasted as "in the pocket of developers," he has accumulated a list of environmental credits including the Severn River Association's Green Heron Award.
Born to a Baltimore family that migrated to the suburbs, John Gary grew up in Pasadena and Glen Burnie. He turned to politics from business - he was a draper - and represented District 33 in the Maryland House of Delegates for 12 years until his election as county executive in 1994.
Gary's wife of 35 years, Ruthanne, works in county government. The couple live in Millersville and have three children: Donna, Cindy and Greg. He was interviewed in his Arundel Center office.
Q Throughout the primary and onto election day, debate has centered on education. We've heard it said that John Gary wants control, control, control.
A It's just the opposite. Who is there standing for the parents and the children when the school board doesn't do what the public wants them to do? Who's there to make them accountable? Parents come to me and say we want reduced classroom sizes. We want more textbooks and more computers. Then I fund them and the council approves these things - and they don't do them.
Q People call you a bully. Does that trouble you?
A It does trouble me. I'll admit I have a short fuse about people who lie to the public. That's really what riles me up. And I get really upset when I know that people are playing on the ignorance of the average voter. The average voter has no idea what the complexity of that school system is. I'm telling the truth, and the truth is a bitter pill to swallow.
QEven if you're re-elected, there's really nothing you can do to get a handle on the educational administration the way you'd like. Is that right?
A That's right, and neither can Janet Owens. And that's what's disturbing to me because she out there telling people that because she's going to be softer and gentler and nicer, that she's going to be able to get these things done. She would find out how frustrating it is to deal with these folks. Because they don't have to do anything that you ask them to do. And they don't. They do want they want.
Q As you said in a debate the other night, there's more to governing than education. Let's talk about Chesapeake Bay. Do you agree that the Bay should be viewed not just in aesthetic terms but for its importance to the local economy?
A Absolutely. We sell the Chesapeake Bay. We sell the quality of life when we want to go out and attract new businesses for the county. We also have an awful lot of marine trade industry that is directly connected to the Chesapeake Bay and that feed families and pays for expenditures for education and those sorts of things.
You can not afford to let Chesapeake Bay become a non-issue. I've gotten some terrible misquotes on my position on the environment. My position has always been that there can be a balance between the environment and business. And it has to be, because if there isn't, you can't protect Chesapeake Bay and you can't have viable economic growth. That's why, when I've been able to buy property that I thought was sensitive property, we've done it. But when we've had property that is develop-able and zoned that way, that's where I've tried to direct the growth.
Q You stepped up to stop the Franklin Point development on the Shady Side peninsula and promised $3 million in county money to buy the land. Are you convinced that the governor will do the same?
A I think the governor is going to do something and he's going to do it quickly. (Editor's note: See "Dock of the Bay" - the puchase is now complete.) He's in such trouble and the environmentalists are truly his people and they're having doubts about him now. He's got a multi-million dollar surplus coming up; it's much more difficult for me to come up with $3 million than it is for him.
When they asked me originally to do this, the price tag was $15 million and I told them there's no way I can handle that. When [environmental consultant] Joe Browder [of Fairhaven] started the negotiations, he came to me and asked 'what if we can get the property for what he [developer Dominic Antonelli] has in it?'
I said, 'if you can get a $6 million deal, you're darn right I'll be there'...
Not only is it important to the Bay, but this peninsula can't handle any more development. They've got road problems. They've got school problems. They can't handle any more development. I said to Joe Browder 'that's a miracle if you can pull that off '
Q Do you talk to Gov. Glendening?
A I've worked with Glendening. I actually like the man; I must be one of the few people that actually like him. He really is an environmentalist. The guy really cares about the environment and when you talk to him, he's a lot like me; he says that business and the environment can co-exist.
Q With regard to development, we've heard you say to people: 'You've got your place on the Bay; you're just trying to keep others out.' How do you balance development needs with the people's desire to protect their quality of life?
A That's a tough issue. First, I involved the citizens in the general development plan, which I think is one of the smarter things I've done. They came up with a great plan. There's very little development that takes place beneath Rt. 214 under this plan. And the only place it does happen is in the existing communities where you already have development: Shady Side, Deale, Mayo.
I also believe that people will learn that I put together one of the best agriculture protection programs in the state. It's all directed to South County. That's why I couldn't understand Michael Shay and those people with South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development attacking me, beating my brains out.
Q How do you rank Chesapeake Bay in your order of county priorities?
A I think I'd put Chesapeake Bay and economic development right next to each other. They're inseparable. Our county has the largest amount of shoreline of any of the jurisdictions around. The Bay is so important to the quality of life for our citizens here, that it, to some degree, outweighs economic development.
Q What's the most important thing you've done toward preserving the Bay?
A We put in the 100-foot Bay buffer zone restricting development completely, and we were the first ones to do that. We sent a notice to every single homeowner on the Bay telling them what's permissible and what's not permissible. Up until then, citizens were truly confused about what they could and couldn't do with their property. That really helped people understand they should be planting aquatic grasses and low-lying shrubs in front of the water instead of planting grass and fertilizing. We're now putting together a video tape for every person that buys a home in Anne Arundel County in the critical areas telling them what they can do and what they can't do within this 100-foot buffer.
The second is our agriculture lands preservation. We really are doing a superb job there. We've purchased - I should say protected - over 5,000 acres of land in our four-year term. It's more than [my predecessor] did. And he had money. I've had to do it with innovative methods.
John Gary announces his plan to save Franklin's Point this spring.
Q We've heard you speak of the work the county's Smart-Growth initiative does for Chesapeake Bay. Now the state has one as well ...
A The Smart-Growth initiative was mine; I don't care what this governor says. We had it a year before they did, and they came in and copied it.
We said we're going to redirect growth to the town centers: the Glen Burnie town center, Odenton town center and Parole town center. Glendening knew I was doing this because I went to the state transportation people and I said 'this is how I want to run my county. I don't want to run light rail in my county. Not too many people ride it because it's too long and too slow. I need a transit system that will connect between those town centers so that we have a public transportation system that moves people around that area and redirects the growth to places where we already have the infrastructure.'
Q What's your analysis of what happened to Diane Evans?
A When I ran four years ago, I don't think that Diane thought I could beat Ted Sophocles. When I beat him, I think that upset her plans. It caused her to make a political decision that she shouldn't have had to make. She then thought she could beat me within a Republican primary. And what happened is when she went to all the elected officials and to all the women's clubs, they were all rejecting her.
She listens to Maury Chaput, who's never met a human being that he likes. He's the most negative man I've ever been around in my life. I've never seen anyone like him. For some reason, she then allowed [Senate President] Mike Miller to convince her that she would be welcome in the Democratic Party. After being a fiscal conservative all her life and working in Republican politics for 25 years, I don't know what made her believe that she was going to walk over to the Democratic Party and they were going to embrace her, particularly the unions.
Q Have you had a conversation with Diane Evans since?
A No, and I don't suspect that we will. Her campaign was very personal against me.
Q Are you breathing easier now that you don't have an aggressive Diane Evans to run against?
A This campaign is going to be very tough. I have very high negatives because of this school issue, higher than I've seen in most incumbents. When somebody has a negative opinion, you very rarely can change it and get them to vote for you. We still have a fairly large 10 to 15 percent undecided out there.
Am I comfortable? No. Actually, Janet Owens is a tougher candidate to run against because she has no track record. Diane Evans voted with me nine out of 10 times. And I'd have been able to beat her brains out on the campaign trail.
QYou come from suburban background. How did you get sensitized to open space and the Bay?
A I've always been interested in wildlife. I thought I was going to be a veterinarian when I was in college; that's what I went to school for. I guess that helped me realize what the value of the habitat is. Of course, I also like to play golf, and I think that open space and golf enhance the community
Q What do you shoot on the golf course, 73 to 75 or so?
A No, pretty consistently 85 to 95; I'm not a real good golfer.
Q Do you get out on the Bay?
A I'm one of these guys that's real smart. I don't own a boat. I have friends who own boats. Whenever we get a chance to go out with them, we're real happy with that.
People don't understand about this job. My wife, Ruthanne, and I have very little free time. When we do, we're constantly talking about county business. All the time. This last four years has just dominated our lives. So when we do get a chance, we'll go down to Ocean City for a long weekend, and just get a condominium and do nothing. We don't go swimming in the ocean or anything like that. We just go there, get away and relax.
Q Has your term as county executive changed you?
A Yes, I think it has. Because the press has had an overwhelming effect on me.
When we were in the General Assembly, we had to bust our necks to get anybody to write about us. When I became county executive, if I blew my nose wrong, somebody was writing a front page story about it. By golly, I came into office and bought a county car because the previous one was gone. So I get a front-page newspaper story that says Gary buys a luxury vehicle. I bought a Mercury, for God's sake. I didn't go out and buy some Lincoln Continental. How is that fair journalism?
I've become very sensitive that things I'm saying are taken so out of context, and the things that I do. It's made me defensive. I used to be very open with people and tell them as much as you could possibly tell them about what is going on. But you can't do that with [The Capital] because, number one, they don't bother to get both sides of the story. ... It's been devastating to try to run the government with all this stuff on the front page of the newspaper that is incorrect.
Q What part of this business of campaigning do you like?
A I like getting out and meeting people and telling them what their government is actually doing. We talk about voter apathy, but that's not what it actually is. People are busy trying to run their own lives.
Janet Owens: 'I feel it in my stomach '
With her call for civility in county government, Janet Owens says she's the right candidate to take John Gary's job away.photo by Betsy Kehne
Janet Owens is campaigning for the county's most powerful office as a private citizen and as a Democratic loyalist who challenged conventional wisdom in the primary - and won.
A behind-the-scenes party regular, Owens is president of the Democratic Women of Anne Arundel County. Her only at-large elected office was judge of the county Orphan's Court.
A public administrator by profession and education, she holds a degree from George Washington University and has completed doctoral studies at the University of Massachusetts. In Massachusetts state government, she was the highest ranking appointed woman.
Back in Maryland, Owens switched her career to county government. She was appointed executive director of first the Anne Arundel County Housing Authority and then the Department of Aging.
In the private sector, she has been a director of two insurance companies, a nursing home and the Provident Center Foundation, as well as other community boards. She is currently an officer and trustee of Harbor Hospital in Baltimore.
A double residence - Owens lives in Millersville but recently inherited her family farm and girlhood home in Lothian - gives her experience in both Western and Southern Anne Arundel.
She has been married for 22 years to David Sheehan, who is her campaign manager. The couple have two sons, both of whom study in Massachusetts. Christopher is a junior at Boston College, his father's alma mater. Brendan, 18 and a high school senior, attends a special school.
Q Were you surprised when you won the primary?
A No. I always truly felt I was the right person at the right time. I just felt it in my stomach.
Janet Owens with Democratic legend Louis Goldstein.
Q Did you feel a rallying that hadn't been expected?
A Yes, and that went directly to the Democratic leadership. The Democratic leadership certainly followed through on their commitments to Diane Evans to whole-heartedly support her. But I felt the leaders were out of touch with their own constituents.
Q Is there an experience or constellation of experiences in your life that has led you to make this campaign now?
A I feel in some respects all of my life experiences led me to it because when I decided to run, it certainly wasn't conventional political wisdom. It started about two years ago, and it was all because of driving back and forth to the farm. I thought, I'm free now, and I really can't stand what I see happening to the county.
I am not aware of another person in who's from the deep south of the county, lived in the central part of the county and has spent so much time with real people in North County. There's a deep divide between the regions and real, genuine resentment. The north feel like they're the economic engine, and they get the jail, they get the dumps, they get the fly-ash. The south has all this land, and they have the pollution.
With my years of management experience, I felt this was the right time and the right place for me to try to make a genuine, long-term contribution. And it was because of John.
I do not have other political ambitions.
Q Education has become the big issue of your campaign against John Gary. Your opponent says that the problems are in the system. Without the General Assembly, what could you do to make a change?
A When I say it takes communication and collaboration, it really does. I was in county government, so I am familiar with how it used to be. I saw the relationship between the budget office, the auditor's office and the school board, which was continuous. Now there is such a breakdown.
John says there have been no audits. They're done routinely, required by state law. I think there are not the right people within the Gary administration who are the liaisons with the school board.
Q You've said repeatedly that being civil can go a long way to solving problems. Is that right?
A Absolutely. John constantly is attacking. He doesn't want to hear the problems.
The costs have accelerated. Greg Norris, who is now chief of finance in the school board, used to be the county budget officer. He knows. So when we have all this public discussion - 'I don't know how they spent the money, I gave them this money' - people within government do know.
And it's not all a money problem. There are problems within the school system. Fourteen percent of the population is now special ed. And 25 percent of the budget is tied to that population. These are federal and state mandates, things beyond local control.
So I see it very much as posturing and an attack on public education, because John really doesn't value that as a priority.
Q What do you think your opponent intends to gain from this attack?
A John has a very long history as a parent and citizen - and a legislative history - of attacking the public school system. I think he strongly supports private education: the whole array, from Severn School to the Christian schools to any alternative. I feel like I'm back in my old graduate school days reading Horace Mann that the foundation of democracy is a public education system.
I think John Gary really does not care deeply about that and if he had his druthers would have vouchers and other alternatives, letting people purchase what they want.
Q One of the analyses of your candidacy is that you haven't been on the front-lines recently, especially when it comes to all the development controversies that have so consumed a lot of people.
A Only personally, very personally, with this farm.
When my mother died absolutely unexpectedly, with no estate planning, the easiest thing in the world would have been to sell the farm. Everything worked against keeping the farm. Then I wanted to move toward putting it into preservation. I've worked with the state of Maryland, soil conservation, and the county health department - which I've personally found impossible to deal with in terms of a new septic system.
Q Would you say you share citizens' outrage at the tangle of bureaucratic red tape?
A Absolutely. The permitting process is endless, yet some folks get absolutely expedited permits.
Q What will you do to make this a more equitable system?
A I don't view favoritism for certain folks. Same strokes for all folks. It's permitting and also the paying of bills, seeing how long it takes for payment to get made. I view it as management.
Q But you would be thrust into a mature debate where Gary and Diane Evans each took their positions. How would you be able to get up to speed, and what actions would you take?
A First and foremost, in terms of management style, I am extremely comfortable using experts and listening to people. There are some very good people within county government; many of them have been muzzled. Nor do I find it personally overwhelming getting on top of an issue and learning about it. I know I'm good at doing that. I do think the key is extremely competent, able people.
Q With New Bay Times, Gary talked a lot about his environmental consciousness and how he's come to adopt conservation. Do you think he might be posturing when it comes to growth management?
A Absolutely. I don't believe that for one minute.
Q One of Diane Evans' themes in her ill-fated campaign was payback, how, if John Gary is reelected, there would be a great deal of payback to contributors. Do you share that concern?
A I've said publicly much worse, which is that if John is re-elected, there will be nothing left of the county.
Q In one of the debates, we quoted you as noting congestion and growth extends from one area of the county to the other. Can you give us a short list of ideas or proposals you bring to the job?
A A management review of PACE, Planning and Code Enforcement, is in order. I view that as the internal working of government, and I see that as a first priority.
To the north, Mountain Road is a serious problem. It's increasingly sensitive because of development. Things are exploding up there with a very large proposed development that is allied to the golf course and backs up to Stoney Creek Gun Club. They need a golf course, anything that gives some recreation up there and saves some open spaces.
The areas I see where there are real strengths and some stability are Glen Burnie Town Center. I think the governor's Smart Growth Initiatives are really wonderful, and I think over time, say 20 years down the road, Brooklyn Park and Glen Burnie are areas that could become sustainable communities with mature housing, places where people could live and walk to work. I give John credit for brining it to fruition, but I know how hard people have worked. And it's going to take more effort, to get the sort of new small businesses that make a community fun to walk in.
South County in some respects because of outspokeness of the citizens is in better shape that other areas of the county. I know that the experts that were here, the International Exchange, were so excited about our area. I look forward to seeing in detail what they propose.
Q One of the most interesting things the South County International Exchange proposed at their final community meeting was the continuation of the Small Area Planning Commissions as an early form of local government. What is your reaction to an idea like that?
A I think that's exciting. In Millersville, our General's Highway Small Area Planning group is really outstanding and I think it represents all interests, which is a concern. The thing that worries me is the unevenness of the plans, coupled with comprehensive rezoning, which is coming but is not necessarily linked to the Small Area Planning process. Somehow that's got to be dovetailed.
As far as the unevenness, once a committee finished its work I had thought of another check before it goes to the council: perhaps an independent advisory committee of nationally recognized experts - wise people - who have no interest whatsoever at stake.
Q Another complaint people make is the composition of the Small Area Planning Commissions, particularly in Edgewater-Mayo. Now anybody can say sour grapes, but I think the real complaint is that they had no voice in who was included, and of course that went all the way back to the General Development Plan. Would you be interested in citizen input in the groups that continue to be constituted?
A Absolutely. I think one of the things that has alienated so many of the citizens is that they don't have a voice. Ensuring citizen participation in the sense that government is open to influence - not development interests, to everybody - would be a major priority.
Q How would you do that?
A I think it starts with some hands-on management, meaning department heads know what is going on. They relate to constituents as well as their first-line supervisors. I know I sound like a bureaucrat, but that's what it takes to make government responsive. If it's only the top folks talking to each other and a few top citizens, you alienate people.
Q A lot of our readers pay a good deal of attention to Chesapeake Bay, and the county you seek to lead has hundreds of miles of shoreline on the Bay. Is there a short list of ideas you have about what the county should be doing in the coming years for the Chesapeake Bay?
A One of the big areas, certainly in Severna Park, is tied to our aquifers and wells. In Cape St. Claire, too, and historically down here that's blowing up right now. That's a critical thing for the tributaries, and the water quality is a thing county government can directly impact.
Q We're asking about the Bay itself, not just the sufficiency of water in people's homes? Have you given any proactive thought to any sort of programs?
A I tend to have great confidence in Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and I spent some time with Mike Schultz [director of public information at CBF] trying to find concrete, specific things that county government can do other than the bully pulpit. For one, county needs to apply our own standards to our highways as we build, applying the same standards as citizens.
Q Do you go out on the Bay?
A We fish and water-ski.
Q So you have a boat? And where do you keep it?
A A Boston Whaler. Over in the barn. We put it in and go down the Patuxent River. And we go out with friends on the Bay.
Q About the campaign, the tenor seems to be a bit more brutal in the last weeks. To what do you attribute this? Do you have him running scared?
A I was shocked when I saw the ad saying I was going to lift the tax cap. I never said any such thing. It's a big buy, Channel 13, saying 'Liberal groups supporting Janet Owens - and then my picture - wanting to lift the tax cap.'
I thought, who are these liberal groups? I don't know who they are ... I'm assuming John was worried. I just completed my ads, which will go on cable, and there's no reference to John.
Q How do you win this thing? Who are your voters?
A I see my voters as senior citizens, teachers, young people 18 to 21, Republican women and parents who see what's really happening in the public schools.
Teachers got credit for the primary, but if you look at the numbers, I could never have won without senior citizens.
Q Do you think you've been able to draw the clear distinctions with Gary that you need to draw to rouse this coalition?
A Absolutely. Except with the media. I think the average citizens are absolutely offended with what's been happening with government. I've been astonished. I have not been asked by one person about Washington, and I've decided that folks are so alienated by Washington, by the media, they don't want to hear it, they don't want it in their life. They don't want ugliness and they just want the sense that people are going to do their job and make things work.
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VolumeVI Number 42
October 22-28, 1998
New Bay Times
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