Life of the Party

Winning the Governor's Mansion could be a religious experience for the GOP.

While Bill was an undergraduate in the Sixties, Mike was working for the U.S. government in Vietnam. That helped Bill avoid a knee-jerk reaction to the war, he says. "I was not emotionally seared by the college experience," he says. "I had fun in college. I was not a political junkie."

Depends on how you define "political junkie." Owens was student body president at Stephen F. Austin for two years and in 1972 met his future wife, Frances, at a Young Republicans convention.

Never a hippie--"I was a child of the Sixties and Seventies," Owens says, "but I kind of rejected nihilism"--he found another way of getting high: political combat. "There's never been anything quite as defining," says Owens, "as an election day when your name is on the ballot." Ah, the seductive art of politics.

"You are representing what you believe, and you have a worthy opponent on the other side, and you're debating and the lights are on," he muses. "There's an excitement to it. And the important thing is, there's an excitement for a reason. There are people in politics who actually don't care about policy. I actually care about policy. But I also think that the process in a democracy is kind of neat, the way you go out and try to convince people that you're the candidate, and it's on your own skill and your experience and your own hard work that you win or lose."

As Bill Owens tells it, he stood out at the LBJ School as one of its few conservatives. Late last month he returned there as a "distinguished lecturer."

"I asked them why they picked me," he says, "and they said, 'Well, we're kind of embarrassed, but you're the only statewide elected official that ever came out of the LBJ School.' I said, 'Boy, that's something--the only Republican that ever graduated, plus the only elected official.' I do enjoy the debate and the give and take of ideas. I think that this is a neat system, and it really does need to have people on both sides who can argue their case. And sometimes on my side I don't see conservatives who are able to engage in the battle of ideas. And I've been in the middle of it."

After graduating from the LBJ School in 1975, Owens worked for Touche Ross as an analyst and then was hired as an internal consultant for the Gates Corporation. He and Frances moved to Aurora and began building a family. Today they have three children.

In 1981 Owens started seriously working on his political career, becoming director of the Colorado Division of the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association, the oil industry's trade group and lobbying arm. His business ties have helped provide a steady flow of income for all of his political races. The next year, he ran for a state House seat and won. After six years in the House, he ran for the state Senate and won. In 1994, after six years in the Senate, he ran for state treasurer and won. Not until he became treasurer did Owens step down from his job with the oil and gas industry. Although some may see his decision to continue working in the oil industry while serving in the state legislature as a conflict of interest, Owens points out that other lawmakers who work in fields that have business before the legislature, such as teachers and trial lawyers, also keep their jobs while at the Capitol.

Over the past sixteen years Owens has built a solid political network, plugging into some of the richest and most powerful people in Colorado. He's on the board of the local chapter of the America Israel Friendship League, an alliance of wealthy Jews and Christians devoted to Israel that often lands on the society pages for the fabulous parties it throws. Other politicians have made that connection; the current chairman is Denver mayor Wellington Webb, a liberal Democrat. But the league also attracts members of the religious right: A recent honoree was Pastor George Morrison of Faith Bible Chapel of Arvada, an unstinting supporter of Israel whose church, the locus of religious-right activity in the north metro area, has hosted prominent Israeli government officials. Morrison's fascination with Israel--his church uses a smattering of Hebrew, hosts an annual Israeli Day and aims its conversion cannons at Jews--stems from many evangelical Christians' belief that Israel has to exist as a nation before Jesus returns to Earth, converts the Jews to Christianity and takes all the Christians on the planet to heaven.

Owens, who has been a guest speaker at Faith Bible, says his own interest in Israel has nothing to do with religion. "Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East," says Owens. "And it really stood for something. And in addition, it was always our American aircraft carrier in terms of a very dangerous area of the world.

"It had nothing to do with any sort of Christian-right agenda to Christianize Israel. All this theology is way beyond me."

The politics of the situation aren't: Owens uses campaign contributions to pay his annual dues to the America Israel Friendship League.

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