Making Book on Bill Owens

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

Owens has dwarfed Norton in fundraising, amassing almost as much money in his campaign coffers as there is in the vault of the state treasury, which he oversees when he isn't campaigning. Owens has successfully buttonholed several key GOP moderates, who say they really like good ol' Tom but believe that Owens is their best chance to take over the Governor's Mansion for the first time in more than two decades.

The Democrats lag far behind the GOP in voter registration and face a tough choice in their own primary. Lieutenant Governor Gail Schoettler leads in campaign money over legislator Mike Feeley, but Feeley, a classic pro-choice liberal with strong union support who served in the Marines, might be the more dynamic candidate against Owens, a pro-war demonstrator in college who didn't bother to enlist in the military to back up his words. Owens supported the anti-gay-rights Amendment 2; Feeley says gays are being unnecessarily picked on. Owens is anti-abortion; Feeley is strongly for the right to choose an abortion.

Sitting at a conference table alongside Dick Wadhams, his campaign manager, Owens muses about how a race against Feeley would give voters "a clear choice." He's right about that. Owens says he would relish such a race. Translated from Billtalk, that means the only candidate Owens really fears is Feeley.

But he's looking further ahead, past the November 3 election. As governor, he says, he would focus on only a limited number of issues and try to do them well. He points to a similar strategy employed by Governor George W. Bush of Texas, the ex-president's son. Owens, however, isn't averse to taking stances on a couple of issues that amount to a pre-emptive strike at his natural foes.

Owens congratulates TCI's John Malone for making a billion dollars, but the would-be governor wants to cut back public-school funding by hounding $20,000-a-year schoolteachers into carrying heavier loads.

"I want to do away with tenure for new teachers," he says. "The CEA [Colorado Education Association] will fight me on that. With Amendment 15 [setting campaign-finance limits], it's almost impossible for an incumbent to lose. What's it worth to the teachers' union to fight me, knowing I'd be in there for eight years? They'll fight me hard. And I want right-to-work. What's it worth to the AFL-CIO to fight me? They'll fight me hard, too."

While many Republicans say they know exactly what to expect from a Governor Norton--no surprises--no one really knows what to expect from Owens, especially on social issues. Some Republicans have said that if he really does hold rigid views, he wouldn't act on them because he's ambitious for an even higher office. (Owens laughs at the notion that he's interested in anything more than governor.) Others say he's got too much statesmanship to get bogged down in picayune fights over every little item on a right-wing agenda.

Asked the question for the hundredth time, Owens responds: "I am not a stealth candidate for the religious right. I am a mainstream conservative. I think the religious-right thing is brought up in my case because it's hard to attack me on what I've done on taxes, on child abuse, on other issues." (Owens successfully carried a bill in the legislature that protected children's health care from parents who were denying them treatment for religious reasons.)

"If I was driven by a religious-right agenda," he says, "why would I sit back and not do anything about it in the legislature? Boy, that would be patient! That's a decade of my career!"

In fact, Owens contends that he may have lugged the cross for the religious right just one time during his twelve years as a representative and senator in the Colorado General Assembly.

"I never was involved on any issue as a sponsor except one that might have been thought of as religious right: the pornography issue," he says. "There was a real problem there. I think at some point that something is pornographic. And I don't mean Penthouse or Playboy. I don't mean those things. But I think society should have a role and an ability at some point--we can argue about where that is. And so that was the only issue I ever carried."

When he carried it, the issue was never portrayed as having anything to do with the religious right--not by Owens, not by any other proponents. But when the voters found out that the measure, which started out as Senate Concurrent Resolution 94-1 in the 1994 session and wound up on the November 1994 ballot as Amendment 16, had some hidden agendas, they soundly rejected it.

Veteran Republican senator Dottie Wham of south Denver had an idea back in April 1994 as to why fellow senator Bill Owens's measure to change the state's constitution landed in the Judiciary Committee, which she chaired then and now. SCR 94-1 ostensibly was aimed at bringing Colorado's obscenity laws in line with other states' by placing language in the state constitution saying "the promotion of obscenity may be controlled by the state, [counties and cities]." It had been passed in a committee of Owens's liking, and it ordinarily would have gone to the Senate floor for a vote. But the Senate leadership didn't want anyone to actually vote on it. Why?

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