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Life of the Party

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

You take your chances walking into a political rally with no stickers on your body. You feel like the first sailor off the boat stepping into a gaggle of prostitutes. Smiling people move toward you, seeking to press your flesh and slap names on your chest. Hands come out of nowhere to grab for your support.

The seductive side of politics emerges even in bland suburban settings. Late last month the Aurora Republican Forum rounded up the three remaining GOP candidates for governor--Bill Owens, Tom Norton and Terry Walker--for a debate. The spacious meeting room of the Aurora Association of Realtors was standing room only. Fully half the crowd appeared to be politicians themselves, running for local, state and congressional offices.

What a bunch of happy hookers.
For the first time in 24 years, the Republican Party has a real shot at capturing the Colorado Governor's Mansion. And the man in the best position to do so is Aurora's own Bill Owens, currently the state treasurer but for twelve years before that a legislator noted for his zeal to build prisons and fight crime. He's articulate and telegenic, he's raised the most money, he's the only GOP candidate who's won a statewide race, and he has support from several of the state's Republican congressmen.

In fact, he's in the midst of pulling off a miracle. Owens, a Catholic who opposes abortion and has enjoyed the blessings of the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family, has strong support in the Republican religious-right wing, which controls much of the party machinery, including the state chairmanship. At the same time, though, he has convinced key moderate, pro-choice Republicans to come along for the ride--perhaps because the latter group is so eager to reclaim the Governor's Mansion.

"Some people are already picking out new curtains," jokes Bruce Holland, a moderate, pro-choice Republican who chairs the Denver County Republican Party. Holland will vote for Owens, though he says he will remain officially neutral during the process of picking a candidate.

Among other moderate Republicans, there are rumblings that Owens may be a Trojan horse for the religious right. The candidate strenuously denies it, saying he's trying to unite all factions of the party. And Holland says Owens has convinced many moderates, including him, that he's not going to surprise them.

"He may believe in his heart of hearts in that stuff," says Holland, "but as long as he acts mainstream and governs mainstream, he'll be all right. And I think he will. He wants to become governor. And he knows what he has to do."

That he does. Except for the expanding bags under his eyes, the 47-year-old native of Texas still looks like a Boy Scout or student council president--and he was both. But he's not just a good-looking mannequin. He's a smooth career politician who usually keeps his rigidly conservative feelings under control and, by all appearances, plots his own strategy. Unlike perpetually feverish religious-right conservatives such as legislator Barry Arrington, Owens will not fall on the sword of ideology. He keeps his balance and knows exactly where to position himself.

At the Aurora rally, when the three gubernatorial candidates walked to a table at the front of the room for the start of the debate, Owens sat right in the middle. He placed himself to the right of Senate president Tom Norton of Greeley and to the left of religious radical Terry Walker. He made a little joke about it to make sure the crowd noticed.

No one plays to an audience like Bill Owens.

In March 1995, Bill Owens sacrificed a beautiful Saturday morning to help train religious-right activists. He was a featured speaker at "Do It Right," a workshop conducted by Focus on the Family's local political-action arm, the Rocky Mountain Family Council. After a "Good morning, Jesus" invocation, Gary Barkalow, head of Focus's family-council branches, told the 175 Christians (and one undercover reporter): "You might not know that the RMFC is part of a larger movement." The Colorado Springs-based broadcasting empire, headed by James Dobson, had similar councils in 35 states, he said. And those councils were also busy training activists who were in politics to bring people to Christ.

Dave Shiflett, at the time the deputy editorial-page editor of the Rocky Mountain News, next gave tips on how to get more religious-right propaganda into newspapers. "Editors, journalists, like everyone else, want to do as little as possible," he said. Suck up to them, schmooze them, talk to them about crime. "Everyone's concerned about violence," Shiflett added. "Do remember to package it well, and don't be shy."

According to Shiflett, Denver journalists were easy to manipulate. "The media are like a bunch of birds on a wire," he said. "One flies off and all the rest will follow. I've found journalists in Denver are very easy to get along with. I don't think you have as big a hurdle to put up with as you would in Washington or New York."

RMFC chief Tom McMillen then introduced state treasurer Owens, "the architect of charter schools." Owens told the enthusiastic audience that most of his opposition came from the "religious left," asked the crowd to "send a contribution to the RMFC," praised Shiflett's editorial page as "a real jewel" and declared, "I'm so excited that people like you are getting involved."

Then it became "us." Owens told the crowd of evangelical Protestants--many of them inherently suspicious of Catholics because they aren't "born again" Bible readers--that he was a founding member of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in southeast Aurora, "but I feel like I'm a member of a number of churches." He pointed out that he had been invited to speak at many other churches, including the non-denominational Grace Community, a church typical of the ones these activists attended. He also displayed his credentials by proudly noting that he participated in marathon Bible readings.

Still, he cautioned the group not to be "liberal-bashers." Said Owens, "It takes them knowing we don't have horns on our head and don't want to make them go to our church on Sunday morning."

He offered a host of practical suggestions, including "public relations," testifying on bills and writing op-ed pieces for the local papers. "I had one in the Post," he said, "and I have a piece for the Rocky Mountain News for next month. It's easy to do this." Added Owens, "As you start to get involved in this process, the process will start responding to you."

Continuing to push the right buttons and assuming his words weren't for public consumption, Owens indulged in a bit of liberal-bashing himself, blasting Dorothy Rupert of Boulder, the most far-left state lawmaker, as someone who "thinks less than anyone else in the legislature."

But that kind of talk was a no-no in public, Owens admitted. At that, one listener voiced the frustration of many of the zealots in the audience when he said, "We suddenly want things to turn around overnight." At the time, religious-right activists were heavily into confrontation--and were losing political races as a result.

Owens cautioned the group to put on a moderate face. "We tend to get angry," he said. "We have to be calm. We tend to come in and say we want to win the same way we lost. Uh-uh."

Bill Owens grew up in Texas, but he has no hint of a twang. His dad, he says, migrated to Fort Worth from Minnesota and became an insurance salesman, running a one-person agency. Now deceased, Pat Owens passed on to his five children his independence, youthfulness and energy--he was still racing cars when he was 75--along with an interest in politics. Bill's dad was an early ally of Democrat Jim Wright, who became one of the most powerful members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Jim Wright befriended me," says Owens, "even though my politics were different."

The oldest Owens kid, Mike, now 53, is currently the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. If anyone is a smoother speaker than Bill Owens, it's career foreign service officer Mike, who formerly was the State Department's top person in D.C. for the Philippines and surrounding areas and is now the country's number-two person in economically ravaged and politically turbulent Indonesia.

Both Owens boys (they have three sisters) were history buffs, Mike tells Westword. "He and I both won the history award in high school," says Mike.

But neither boy was a complete policy wonk, either. Mike says Bill "was a pretty good pitcher, too." Bill says Mike had scores of golf-scholarship offers and probably could have made a living on the PGA Tour. That golfing skill hasn't been entirely wasted, though. "Every prime minister in the region always wants to play golf with Mike," says Bill.

Mike and Bill spent a year together in D.C. between 1967 and 1968, when Bill was a teen page at the U.S. House of Representatives, but their paths haven't crossed that often since. "We haven't seen each other an awful lot," says Mike, "but when we do, it's, 'Gee, have you read this or that?' I never fought with him, but we would argue about, say, whether MacArthur was right, and one of us would go get a map. He generally was a good bit more conservative than I--not that I'm that liberal."

And not that his brother is easily labeled. "I'd have to disagree with anyone who says he's a captive of any group, particularly the religious right," says Mike. "He's just plain interested in things. He's got a real curiosity. My impression is that I don't think he's got a 'master plan' for Colorado. He just wants government made more efficient. His positions are thoughtful ones.

"Maybe it's true that he was always preparing himself for a career in politics."

That summer in D.C. with Mike was a heady experience for Owens. "I wasn't star-struck," says Bill, "but I was very, very impressed by the way democracy works." While many others of his generation have warm memories of trying to tear the system down, Owens has flashbacks of William "Fishbait" Miller, the House's longtime doorkeeper, and of seeing democracy in action.

Although Mike had gone to college in Michigan, Bill stayed in Texas. He attended Stephen F. Austin State University and then earned a graduate degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. He also served as a staffer for Republican senator John Tower.

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.

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.

Owens notes that his bill was sponsored on the Senate side by, among others, Meiklejohn, a Goldwater-style Republican who fought the religious-right wing of the party during his twenty years in the legislature.

"Talk to Al Meiklejohn," says Owens. "I'll be interested to see what he says. I served on committee with him and developed a level of respect with Al."

Meiklejohn, who retired from the legislature in 1996, calls Owens a "smart guy" but adds, "He's a very hard-right conservative, and I think he has ties to the religious right. I also think Bill Owens is going to be the nominee of the Republican Party--with all due respect to Tom Norton."

Norton's in a difficult situation. Up to 70 percent of Republicans may be pro-choice, according to party moderates. But because the party machinery is controlled in large part by abortion foes, the pro-choice Norton realized he would have little chance of landing on the August primary ballot if he went through the GOP's caucus system. House Speaker Chuck Berry saw the same writing on the wall when he dropped out of the gubernatorial race last month. Norton's not giving up; he's going the petition route.

It's not as if he's without support. Several hours after Norton's appearance at the Aurora Republican Forum, Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris hosted a fundraiser for him in the luxury suites of Coors Field. Norton, who is quite conservative himself, has the respect of many Republicans, but Owens has already locked up support from such heavy hitters as U.S. Senator Wayne Allard. As one moderate Republican says, "Bill Owens is on a roll."

In Meiklejohn's view, the Democrats will benefit from an Owens candidacy. Lawmaker Mike Feeley and Lieutenant Governor Gail Schoettler are jousting for their party's nomination; Meiklejohn predicts that Feeley will get it. "And I think Mike Feeley will win," he says. "There are a lot of Republicans, in their heart of hearts, who think Owens is too far to the right. Colorado is a center-right state."

Plenty of other moderate Republicans have trepidations about Owens. Veteran party activist Sharon Klusman of Evergreen clashed with the religious-right wing of her party in the early Nineties and was sent packing.

She sees Owens as "borderline" religious right. "I have always believed Bill Owens was decidedly pro-life, but several Republican businessmen have told me he doesn't intend to carry that out," says Klusman. "I'm puzzled by where he stands. He's saying to donors that 'it may look like I'm one of them, but I'm not.' He needs pro-choice Republicans to win the election, but he's better served by the fundamentalists, because they're the center of power in the party. I firmly believe they believe he's one of them."

Pat Miller, a twice-defeated candidate for Congress and a hardworking leader of religious-right Republicans in Arvada, still believes in Owens. But what about the hated bubble bill? "He told me," she says, "that he would take that vote back, and I believe him. I've talked to Bill Owens. I asked him whether he would veto any pro-life legislation coming out of the legislature. He said he wouldn't."

Adds Klusman: "He's polite, deferential, gracious, blah, blah, blah, but he scares me to death. I'd much rather have someone be more up front about what they're thinking."

This is what Bill Owens says when pressed about his ties to the religious right: "I'm not in politics to bring people to Christ. I'm in politics because I think there are certain policy issues which work better than others. Generally speaking, lower taxes help economies. I think, generally speaking, less regulation helps to encourage a society in which people can grow and develop."

Owens accurately points out that liberal politicians do plenty of politicking in liberal churches and insists he's a mainstream Republican.

"I'm from the conservative wing of the party," he says, "and I think it's a mainstream conservatism that's similar to a Wayne Allard, similar to [former U.S. senator] Hank Brown, with one exception--that Brown's pro-choice and I'm pro-life. In 1986 I was a leader in the Wayne Allard campaign. I was the first person to endorse Wayne Allard. Early. If I were part of some religious-right movement, would I have been with Wayne Allard instead of the 30 percent of the party with Bill Eggert and Charlie Duke? When Pat Buchanan was running, I was an early backer of Phil Gramm. I was state chairman for Phil Gramm, the man who Pastor--I'm literally having a blank, the guy in the Springs--Dobson attacked because Gramm said, 'I'm not running for preacher, I'm running for President of the United States.' Remember Jim Roberts [a former religious-right state senator from Loveland]? I was his seat-mate for six years. He supports Terry Walker. In fact, I'm being hammered from my right wing by Walker for not being conservative, for not being pro-life, not being, you know, right-wing enough. If I were this right-wing zealot, I would be supported by the Terry Walkers and the Charlie Dukes of the world.

"I'd describe myself as a mainstream conservative, and I'm proud to have the support of people from the religious right, just like I'm proud to have support of moderates who are not religious. I'm proud to have the support of a lot of members of the Jewish community."

Owens supported Amendment 2 back in 1992 but says it had nothing to do with a religious agenda: "The reason was that I really don't believe that we ought to establish as a new civil right sexual identity. And that's all there is to it. I do not support gay marriages. But I'm not against homosexuals. I know it sounds trite, but I do have gay friends."

One hallmark of the religious right, as reflected in the pages of the Rocky Mountain Family Council's newsletter, is a concern over too much "tolerance" in society. To which Owens says, "I think we are a multicultural society in which, in fact, we have to have tolerance. I've always been tolerant. Obviously we have to define what we want to tolerate. Do we tolerate child abuse? No. Do we tolerate murder? No. Do we tolerate a person who has different views than ours, a person of color? Absolutely."

Like a Zelig, Owens has shown up in the oddest places. He was the only politician on a long list of ministers and businessmen to attach his name to a "community marriage policy" promulgated by the Rocky Mountain Family Council. The "policy" calls not only for abstinence but also for a commitment to Christ. "Yes, I read it, and there are principles in it that many people would agree with," says Owens. "I wouldn't support a law enforcing this."

Another unusual venue for someone who paints himself as a mainstream conservative was a guest-host spot in 1994 on KHNC-AM, the radical-right station in Johnstown that promoted itself as America's "patriot" radio outlet until Tim McVeigh gave the patriot movement a bad name in 1995.

Owens says his stint on KHNC "really was before its reputation had become established as kind of a militia station. I knew it was a conservative audience, but this was in fact before they probably started to think about the black helicopters."

Bound to plague him in any statewide campaign, though, are his answers on the Christian Coalition's 1994 Voter's Guide: Asked to choose between abstinence or sex education, he chose abstinence.

"I'm not one who believes it has to be either abstinence or sex education," explains Owens.

But Bill Owens will have to keep answering tough questions. The Republican Party's elephant in the living room is not the party symbol: It's abortion.

Late last month, Planned Parenthood's political arm, the Action Fund, sent an anti-Owens blast to its Republican members. Dated March 27, the letter from Sylvia M. Clark, president and CEO of the Action Fund, explained that the organization "is concerned that Owens is not only anti-choice, but also anti-family planning, anti-responsible sex education and, ultimately, anti-Planned Parenthood." An attached "fact sheet" from Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Katie Reinisch and Don Mares, chair of the Action Fund Committee (and also Denver city auditor) said Owens "developed a record and a reputation [in the legislature] as a right-wing, religiously motivated politician." It noted that, according to the Colorado Springs Right-to-Life 1994 voter guide, Owens supported parental notification and consent for teens seeking abortions, opposed fetal-tissue research and supported a ban on public funding for abortion.

Clark, a moderate Republican from El Paso County ("I think there are three of us," she quips), says Owens's candidacy "could be a real threat to people, knowing what he has staked out as his territory."

Concerning sex education, Clark says, "I'm a mom and a grandmom. I think abstinence is wonderful. It solves a lot of problems. But to say all people have to be abstinent is not realistic. To deny people information on how to protect themselves from infection and pregnancy is irresponsible. The effort to say abstinence or nothing denies essential information to people.

"We feel that Mr. Owens has expressed his position very, very clearly on abstinence education, censorship, parental rights and abortion," Clark adds. "It's not usual for us to take this action."

Planned Parenthood's move could threaten the delicately balanced GOP coalition Owens is trying to build. And it angers people like Jack Weil, one of the pro-choice Republicans in Owens's camp. Weil, chairman of the GOP's First Congressional District, has impeccable pro-choice credentials: He was the pro-choice whip for Colorado's delegation at the party's last convention.

"I haven't seen the letter, but if they do that, I will discontinue giving money to Planned Parenthood," says Weil. "I believe that Owens is on the level, honest and a good person. I feel very strongly about Roe v. Wade, and if I felt Bill Owens would upset the apple cart, I wouldn't support him. Mr. Owens is not an extremist in any way, shape or form. This one issue of abortion is not on top of his agenda.

"If I really felt this guy was a right-wing type, I wouldn't be supporting him. I don't get along with those people, and they don't like me."

That's an understatement. Weil, Bruce Holland and other moderates are in the midst of an angry fight with state party chairman Steve Curtis, who's from the party's religious wing. At the same time Owens is trying to distance himself from Curtis, he's careful to stay in the good graces of the party's right wing. To support his contention that he's not Curtis's golden boy, Owens sent Westword a copy of a March 3 letter from Curtis to the GOP's Central Committee members that blasts Holland and Weil. But in his letter, even Curtis notes: "We need to put our disagreements aside if we are to be successful and elect a Republican governor."

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.

Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.

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