Making Book on Bill Owens

Questions about the religious right are this GOP candidate's cross to bear--or is that bare?

Bill Owens was a most confident man and, as always, a cordial host when a reporter entered the air space of his gubernatorial campaign headquarters at I-25 and Colorado Boulevard last week.

"We've got cold water and some warm wine--some of that wine-in-a-box," he offers.

Jesus Christ. Wasn't he the one who turned water into wine? Confirmation at last of the Aurora Republican's official membership in the religious right, that growing group of mostly evangelical Christians who think tolerance is a bad thing, who believe their way is the only way, and who brandish their Bibles against abortion, homosexuality, condoms and freedom of thought. There's probably a colony of believers from Faith Bible Chapel in some back room of Owens's headquarters changing Denver tap water into mediocre white wine to please their Blessed Master Bill, the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination for governor.

Then again, perhaps the guy simply enjoys a glass of wine now and then.

What do you make of a politician who helps train and encourage "my fellow" religious-right political activists but who also says he listens to juvenile phone-pranksters the Jerky Boys on his way to campaign appearances?

How do you judge the views of a Catholic who is so strongly against abortion and prison reform that he has privately flashed intense anger at liberal priests yet never introduced an anti-abortion bill during his years in the legislature and kept a low profile on the issue?

How do you look at someone who gains the loyalty of newly appointed state GOP campaign director Pat Miller, the powerful leader of Arvada's religious-right GOP, yet also enjoys support from pro-choice Republican leaders like Jack Weil of Denver?

How do you explain a political scene in 1998 in which G.I.-generation Goldwater Republicans like Al Meiklejohn call baby-boomer Bill Owens an extremist, and yet Owens argues that he's in the mainstream of the GOP?

The candidate himself doesn't appear too worried about how those questions will be answered.

"Ninety-nine days to go," a relaxed Owens says during this interview, with the general election fewer than a hundred days away. "It's going to be a tough 99 days. The religious-right stuff--the Democrats will throw it against me. They'll say I want to make Colorado a theocracy. That's about all they've got. How do they argue that on their watch, for instance, Hispanic kids aren't graduating from high school?"

A warm endorsement of Owens's "conviction" and "commitment" by ex-senator and religious-right leader Bill Armstrong, a mentor of Owens's, is splashed on the front page of the candidate's campaign brochure, which is being mailed out this day. But you won't find Owens openly denouncing homosexuality in the campaign, as Armstrong did during 1992's Amendment 2 campaign. Of course, you won't find Owens expressing any support for gays, either.

Nor will you hear much talk from Owens about obscenity laws, although he was a spear-carrier for the religious right in 1994 when he carried a measure that opponents denounced as an attempt to stifle free speech. You just find Owens being Owens. Being careful. Being very, very careful.

How much of a change would Bill Owens be from moderate Democrat Roy Romer? Asked whether gay groups would be welcome at the Governor's Mansion, as Romer has welcomed them, the candidate says, "Oh, yeah. The Governor's Mansion is the people's house--I know that sounds Soviet, like 'the people's' factory. But all Coloradans are welcome there as long as they're law-abiding and don't muddy up the carpets."

No, no, Bill, not gay tourists or other casual visitors. How about gays or gay groups being invited for more formal visits?

"I have no animus toward them," Owens says. "I don't think there will be fallout for gays."

How about social-services contracts being awarded to openly gay providers?
"I would not exclude gay and lesbian providers," he says, "nor would I promise to include them."

Don't expect Owens to give the key to the state to the president of Trojan condoms, either. But what about education programs emphasizing safe sex? "I would want to make sure there's a balance with abstinence," he says.

Balance is often the key, anyway. "You've got to be governor of all the people--very open-minded and very tolerant," Romer, now ending twelve years as Colorado's governor, tells Westword. "If there's an AIDS march, you have to go out and participate. You have to use your discretion, of course. But Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, conservative church groups, also liberals, NOW--you do it."

The religious right may sneer at such remarks, but Romer has even huddled with Focus on the Family's James Dobson, the most powerful media magnate of the religious right, to work on getting evangelical churches to set up day-care facilities.

"You have to be inclusive as governor," Romer says. "Social conservatives could begin to exclude people. I don't know how far that would go with Owens."

Owens has often allied himself with people--like Sixth District congressional candidate Barry Arrington--who are so rabid about abortion and pornography and all manner of sin that they view the world as "us vs. them" and can't keep their mouths shut about it. Owens, however, is not an intemperate speaker, though he has shown caustic flashes from time to time. Fourteen days before the August 11 primary, he appears to have a strong lead over his opponent, Senate president Tom Norton of Greeley. Although both are fiscal conservatives, there are striking differences between the smooth-talking, affable Owens and the stolid, not-ready-for-prime-time Norton. Owens is anti-abortion; Norton supports it. Yet that very touchy issue, which has split the GOP and has decided many elections, never dominates debates.

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