Josh Kurtz: Owings Owes an Explanation

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OK, Maryland Democrats, you can stop laughing now.

You can stop laughing about George Owings and his Quixotic Democratic primary challenge to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). In fact, if you think about him at all, you might want to start worrying.

No, Owings isn’t going to win — he probably won’t even come close. But as a symbol, as a vehicle for the anti-O’Malley vote, as a savvy (if somewhat deluded) pol with rakish charm who is intentionally or not, aiding and abetting Republicans, Owings is poised to do some damage.

Does the name Robert Fustero ring a bell? He was the grocery store clerk who, improbably, took 20 percent of the vote in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Without lifting a finger or spending a dime, he took 20 percent — 20 PERCENT! Against a Kennedy, who many supporters figured would wind up in the White House some day.

What Fustero’s showing fairly shouted, if anyone had been paying attention, was that 20 percent of the Democratic primary electorate did not want Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to be their next governor. And lo and behold, they got their wish.

Bold prediction: George Owings is going to way overshoot the Fustero Line. For starters, his resume is considerably more substantial than a grocery bagger’s. Owings is a Vietnam veteran. A former state delegate who served 16 years in Annapolis. Secretary of Veterans Affairs under former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R).

What’s more, Owings is prepared to do a lot with very little. Even if he doesn’t raise much money — and he could do all right on that front, given all the enmity toward O’Malley in certain corners of the state — he should get a fair amount of attention from a Maryland press corps starved for conflict. He can be witty and engaging and has a penchant for saying outrageous things.

Hell, Owings doesn’t even have to campaign during the 90-day legislative session, which begins Wednesday; he can just hang out in Annapolis, pay regular visits to the Statehouse press room, and take potshots, as the governor and legislative leaders grapple with the worst economy since the Great Depression. Sweet life.

The harder thing for Owings is to explain just what it is he thinks he’s doing exactly. Even if he runs a perfect campaign, even if what he’s saying about fiscal sanity and government intrusion makes sense to a whole lot of people, there is no way, with his anti-choice, pro-gun views, that he is going to defeat Martin O’Malley in a Democratic primary.

So, George Owings, explain yourself. Are you really, as several Democratic leaders have groused, a stalking horse for Republicans, the first part of a cynical one-two knock-out punch that the GOP hopes to deliver in November? What’s in it for you? What’s the pay-off?

State House Speaker Mike Busch (D) recently called Owings “a throwback to the 1950s, when tobacco was king” — an arch reference not only to Owings’ old-school political views, but to the fact that he’s a smoker, as if smoking was a disqualification for public office.

But there’s more than an element of truth to the idea that Owings is a throwback. Owings detested former Gov. Parris Glendening (D), Glendening’s devotion to the Democrats’ core constituencies, and the kind of Nanny-State Democratic politics that he seemed to represent. Owings didn’t hesitate for a second when offered a chance to serve in the Ehrlich administration.

By running for governor as a Democrat, as opposed to, say, as an Independent — or even as a Republican — it’s as if Owings thinks that William Donald Schafer is still governor and still in charge of the Democratic Party, that feminism and environmentalism and the civil rights and gay rights movements never happened. That may be a philosophy that attracts a significant protest vote, but it’s not a recipe for victory in the Democratic primary.

Still, the O’Malley forces cannot take Owings lightly. Every vote Owings gets in the primary will be hard for O’Malley to win back in November. Owings’ vote totals — and his pockets of strength — will be heavily analyzed, at least by political insiders, for years to come. (It’s a little analogous to the upcoming special Senate election to replace Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts, which is turning out to be a whole lot closer than Democrats had bargained for.)

O’Malley must try to crush Owings in the primary, without looking like he’s trying. It’ll be a neat trick if he can pull it off. But it may prove to be a lot harder than it sounds.

Josh Kurtz is senior editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .
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