Life of the Party

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

It may be unclear what Governor Bill Owens would do about the sticky issue of abortion, but it's a given that Governor Owens would build more prisons.

Owens says he considers prisons to be part of the basic "infrastructure" of society, along with roads and sewers. In clashes with his leftist critics on the issue of crime and punishment, his anger has passed the boiling point.

For years Owens has argued that the cost of keeping felons in jail is less than the cost of keeping them on the street. He insists that the vast majority of people behind bars are violent felons and that the best rehabilitation is simply to let them grow older in prison.

Roger Lauen, the state's former director of community corrections, butted heads with Owens for years before finally leaving the state. "He's highly intelligent and a very skilled politician, but he's morally intolerant," Lauen says of Owens. "You can tolerate that in a lowly state senator, but please don't elevate him to higher office.

"I watched how he dealt with prison-related issues. He cut people off, raised his voice, started shouting. He's kind of like the only kid who paid attention in high-school speech class."

Like many other liberal reformers, Lauen thinks Colorado has enough prison beds "for the next 200 years," he says. "Colorado has twice as many people in prison as Minnesota and has a million fewer people." He argues that politicians have seized on crime because it's an easy issue.

"Our fear of crime is out of whack," says Lauen. "The fear is higher than the reality of crime, giving politicians a chance to capitalize on it."

And no one capitalizes on it more than Owens. His strong support of the death penalty is at odds with his own church's teachings. And it led to a feud with Father Jim Sunderland, a Jesuit priest who was chaplain to Denver jails. Owens and Sunderland served together on the now-disbanded Criminal Justice Commission. In 1990, Owens acknowledges, he tried to get the Archdiocese of Denver to silence Sunderland after the priest blasted Owens's stance on prison-building.

Sunderland sarcastically refers to Owens's church as "Our Lady of the Cadillacs" and suggests that Owens is simply ultra-conservative, not particularly religious. "My guess is that religion doesn't play that big a role with him," says Sunderland. "Power is what drives him."

The sarcasm runs both ways. During an exchange of letters in March 1990, Owens wrote Sunderland: "It must be terribly frustrating for you to preach the divine truths as taught by our Church but then make so many errors on secular matters...I understand that someday I will have to answer for my actions to the Judge. Are you suggesting that my votes for long prison sentences are somehow sinful? You really do weaken your credibility with such drivel."

In that same letter, Owens touched on the stickiest issue of all. Apparently abortion had been left off the agenda of a conference Sunderland attended, and that angered Owens.

"Good Father, who are you kidding?" Owens wrote. "If the Catholic church does not make abortion an issue, then who will? Will you cease working to abolish the death penalty the minute it ceases to be a legislative issue? You'll let the butchering of innocent babies proceed because it's not on the 'agenda'?"

These days, though, Owens rarely lets himself be seduced into talking like that. Talking so openly could alienate the affections of one side of his party.

He knows his audience.

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