Life of the Party

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

He has paid his dues in other ways, too. "I was active on the Colorado Committee of Concern for Soviet Jews for years," says Owens. "I smuggled Jewish prayer material into Russia, took in pharmaceuticals, took in money."

A lifelong fascination with international politics led to Owens's numerous trips to the Soviet Union and then to Russia. An inveterate name-dropper, Owens points to others who have done similar work in Russia, such as federal bankruptcy judge Sid Brooks. The judge confirms that his path crossed with Owens's. "At one time," says Brooks, "I took stuff for him and he took stuff for me."

Owens knows his audience: He tries to score points with a reporter by implying a certain chumminess with one of the mothers of all journalists, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Remnick, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent who now works for the New Yorker. "In fact," says Owens, "I traveled through Russia with David Remnick, and we put on a seminar with a group of five or six or eight others."

Remnick, who won a Pulitzer for Lenin's Tomb, an account of the fall of the Soviet empire, made a bigger impression on Owens than vice versa: Remnick says he doesn't doubt that he may have met Owens but adds, "I don't recall him."

Owens also sings the praises of Harry Truman. But if he were talking to a reporter for the National Review, Ronald Reagan likely would be the first ex-president on his lips.

There's no doubt, however, that Owens is a well-read person with a deep passion for history and political science. He loves Soviet-era poster art and may be the first treasurer in Colorado history who stashes communist money in his office. He admires Robert Caro's masterful two-volume (so far) biography of Lyndon Johnson and has even plowed through Caro's mammoth tome on New York City power broker Robert Moses.

Asked what he learned from Caro's telling portrait of a fellow Texan, Owens replies, "What not to do. He was an obsessed man. He didn't have a life. Like that stuff on Lyndon Johnson on how he treated his staff and dictated while he was on the pot."

Owens keeps his toilet habits private, says campaign manager Dick Wadhams. But the candidate may have picked up a trick or two from Johnson's career. Like LBJ, Owens has earned points with colleagues by distributing funds from his own full coffers to their campaigns. Although religious-right politicians like Barry Arrington and Arvada representative Mark Paschall have benefited from his largess, Owens points out that he's distributed money to a host of other candidates as well.

And he's dipped his toes into issues that many other conservatives wouldn't touch.

"He was a very savvy and hardworking legislator," says Martha Ezzard, a moderate Republican when she represented tony Cherry Hills Village in the Eighties. Ezzard later left politics to become an editorial writer at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. While in the Colorado Legislature, she and Owens teamed up on a toxic-waste bill aimed at the Lowry Landfill, the kind of legislation that hard-line conservatives usually shy away from. "He carried it," she says, "and I enjoyed working with him." Ezzard also remembers Owens as "very dogmatic about what the party should look like" and "very passionate pro-life."

"I never saw him as not part of the religious right," she says. "I never saw him in the political mainstream. His role model was [former U.S. senator] Bill Armstrong, and his drive was always for higher office. Never a question about that.

"He has a more professional air than others on the right. But underneath it, on abortion, he was very passionate, just like the other religious conservatives."

"Martha's also very political," responds Owens. "Her memory may be tinged by the divergent path she took."

As a legislator, Owens chose his fights carefully. Risking the wrath of his supporters on the right, he backed the bubble bill, which protected people working in abortion clinics as well as people trying to get inside them. "I'm real proud of that," he says. "And I carried the Colorado child-abuse statutes, which were attacked by the parental-rights initiative. I've never introduced an abortion bill. Pornography is the only bill, I believe, that could ever be construed as religious right."

In spring 1994 Owens introduced a measure to redefine pornography. When it failed, religious-right activists put it on the November 1994 ballot as Amendment 16 and pushed it as an attempt to limit child pornography. Attacked by Planned Parenthood and the publishing industry as an attempt at censorship that could have led to bans on distribution of sex-education and sexual-health materials and even to bans on free speech, the amendment was defeated by voters.

Owens contends that he had good working relationships with many moderates, including veteran Arvada Republican Al Meiklejohn. In 1988 Owens sponsored a bill permitting home schooling in Colorado. That has paid tremendous political dividends for him among the religious right. Colorado has a growing home-school movement, most of it involving Christians. But at the time he pushed the bill, Owens insists, he had no idea that home schooling was even an issue among right-wing Christians.

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