Owings is getting serious about gubernatorial run

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

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With the formation of a campaign finance account that has enabled him to begin raising money, former Democratic state delegate George W. Owings III is one step closer to formally launching a gubernatorial bid.

The backslapping Vietnam veteran from Dunkirk who served in the House of Delegates for 16 years, 10 as majority whip, has floated the possibility of running against Gov. Martin O'Malley for several months.

It now appears he is on the cusp of challenging O'Malley in next year's Democratic primary.

"Before I could ask anybody for any money, before I could ask anyone to volunteer an hour for me, I had to reach a point of confidence within myself that I'm not running for running's sake, I would be running to win," Owings said, adding that he has not made a final decision.

But it seems that an announcement is imminent.

Owings, who served as the state's veterans affairs secretary under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the first four months of O'Malley's term, opened the campaign account with the state elections board last month and said he is raising money and sharing his vision for the state with numerous groups.

"I'm circulating around on a small scale right now, collecting money, and pretty much talking to people about where we are" as a state, Owings said. He acknowledged he has "a mountain to climb" to raise enough money to compete with O'Malley, who reported $1.9 million in campaign funds in January and has been soliciting donations and holding fundraisers throughout the year ahead of the 2010 campaign.

The filing does not list what office he intends to run for. The account's treasurer is Joanne Arnick, the widow of the late Del. John S. Arnick, a legendary Baltimore County Democrat who served three separate stints in the House spanning five decades.

Should Owings decide to run against O'Malley, he knows it won't sit well with Democratic Party powerbrokers and some friends in Annapolis. But the straight-shooting Harley-Davidson enthusiast doesn't hide his displeasure with the direction the state is headed under O'Malley. "I do have a bag of stones and I do believe in throwing them out where needed," he said.

"I'm offering up what's wrong and how I would go about fixing it to small groups."

He took particular exception with O'Malley's failure to attend the American Legion Department of Maryland's annual summer meeting several weeks ago in Ocean City. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, an Iraq war veteran himself, appeared on behalf of the administration, but Owings griped that he spent only a very short time.

O'Malley is also disrespecting veterans groups by having one person — James A. Adkins — serve the dual Cabinet roles of veterans affairs secretary and adjutant general, Owings said.

"It just seems to me that of all the departments that if there were two departments that deserved a full-time secretary, it would be those two departments," he said, noting that he has great respect for Adkins, who served as Owings' deputy when he led veterans affairs. "It bothers me that the governor doesn't think any more of those two departments that he tries to work one man to death."

An O'Malley spokesman said the arrangement with Adkins heading two departments is temporary and that there is an active search to find a permanent veterans affairs secretary. Adkins will remain as adjutant general.

"The administration is very close to announcing a replacement, but the timeline is not based on any political will," said O'Malley press secretary Shaun Adamec. "It's based on the desire to find the right candidate."

Owings, a conservative Democrat during his years in the General Assembly, seems unworried about any repercussions he might face by trying to unseat the party's top elected official. "If I'm going to talk the talk, I'm going to walk the walk," he said.

He said he has drawn up a plan to close the state's long-term gap between expenditures and revenues, but declined to give specifics, only saying that "some ideas are substantive in nature and will require voter approval in a referendum."

He also lamented the plight of state employees, who have already been forced to take furloughs and may face another round in the coming months as the state grapples with declining revenues. And the Board of Public Works last week approved cutting 39 filled state positions, which O'Malley proposed.

While politicians come and go, "the state employee one more time is taking it on the chin," Owings said.