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Making Book on Bill Owens

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.

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?

"The concern," recalls Wham, now wrapping up the last couple of years of her tenure in the legislature, "was that nobody wanted to vote on it because if you voted against it, you could be accused later of 'supporting pornography.'"

Wham is a moderate, pro-choice Republican who actually holds elective office--that's an endangered subspecies of the GOP. On her desk at the Capitol is a little statuette of Snoopy hugging a confused-looking Charlie Brown. Engraved on it is a saying: "Dogs Accept People for What They Are." Next to it is a toy black helicopter. On a wall she displays an award from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and a newspaper photo showing her sharing a laugh with Governor Romer.

It's not that she's a bleeding heart. Wham's willing to build prisons, too.
But Owens's bill didn't fool her. Touted as a means of protecting children, the bill was a stealth bill. The Colorado District Attorneys' Council refused to take a stand on the measure. If the prosecutors didn't want it, then who did? During an April 1994 hearing, Owens insisted the bill was merely an attempt to add the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to Colorado's obscenity laws. "Nothing is obscene in this state," he told Wham's panel. "It's tolerated unless people can't endure it. My whole issue revolves around this 'tolerant' standard."

Owens explained that tolerating something meant the extreme case that people wouldn't die or get physically ill from it.

"I'm not trying to move Colorado very far," Owens assured the panel. "I'm not after most of what you see on East Colfax. I'm after bestiality, S&M and that sort of thing."

Some senators, particularly Democrat Don Mares (now Denver city auditor), smelled a rat. "Even if the community could 'tolerate' it, we should quash it?" he asked. Owens replied that the current standard in Colorado meant "you wouldn't die" from it, which meant that anything goes.

Proponents of the measure were led by Barry Arrington's law partner, Gene Malpas, a traveling professional pornography opponent who no longer lives in Colorado, and Denise Mund, a member of the politically active Faith Bible Chapel crowd in Arvada and, not coincidentally, one-time campaign manager for state senator (and 1998 lieutenant governor candidate) Jim Congrove.

Mund's group was named the Coalition Helping to Insure Laws for Dignity so it could use the button-pushing acronym CHILD.

Malpas and Mund tried to sell the measure as necessary to keep children safe from pornography-soaked molesters. They claimed that five court cases had been lost because of Colorado's supposedly lax laws. They neglected to mention that none of the five cases involved child pornography.

Owens then brought in Jan Haley, at the time the president of Colorado PTA, who told the panel that the state PTA had voted to support "this amendment." Haley, who lives in Colorado Springs, added that she was "not asking for a change in laws." That befuddled the senators, who had just heard that the measure called for a constitutional change.

Haley got in deeper when she explained that the PTA was involved to prevent "harm to children." Wham replied, "The people in the PTA don't even know this happened."

Haley tried to explain why the PTA had apparently approved something that was going to wind up as support for a measure its members had never heard of. "It was not a controversial issue," she offered, "just enforcement of laws."

 

To which Wham responded: "I don't know what you're trying to do. I can't find any PTA members who know you're doing this. Why should we do this if no one has called us about it?"

Haley eagerly spoke up: "I can have some people call you."
Wham wryly replied, "No, I'm not asking for people to be asked to call me. If it isn't a problem to people, then why are we here?"

Next up to try to explain was Denise Mund herself, who recounted her extensive study of local porn stores and peep shows, where she'd looked at an awful lot of really disgusting pornography.

"I encourage you to go look in the theaters," Mund urged the senators.
They begged off, but Mares stepped up to try to find out exactly what type of material Mund wanted prosecuted.

"From your personal point of view," he asked her, "are you after X-rated material?"

Mund replied, "I hold a dear belief in the First Amendment."
"Nice try," Mares interrupted. "What about Kitty's, now, or Deep Throat?"
Mund replied, "Well, Deep Throat has been found illegal in some states."

Mares continued to press her, though gently: "What would you be after? Gay movies? Two men kissing? Would that be your line? Where would you draw the line? What are we going to be after? What do you want prosecutors to go after? Does Deep Throat push it too far for you?"

But Mund continued to evade describing what she considered "obscene."
It took the opponents of the measure to voice what many of the senators were thinking.

Jamie LaRue, director of the Douglas Public Library District in Castle Rock, labeled the measure an attempt at censorship. He warned that tightening the freedom of expression in Colorado would have a "chilling effect" on libraries, which would be afraid to purchase innocuous materials that perhaps would be labeled obscene for political reasons.

Another opponent, Lino Lipinsky, chairman of the Bill of Rights Committee of the Colorado Bar Association (and husband of then-state legislator, now-First District Democratic congresswoman Diana DeGette), said the measure would "limit free expression." The measure's proponents, he added, "think the tolerance standard is too high."

Lipinsky warned that tightening the definitions of obscenity could threaten the distri-bution of safe-sex information or such books as Our Bodies, Our Selves. And he dismissed the argument that the bill was necessary in order to prosecute child-porn purveyors. "Would a juror," he asked, "really find child porn 'tolerable'?"

To that, Owens sarcastically responded: "It's ironic that the Bill of Rights Committee is here to stop us from putting the First Amendment in our constitution."

By this point of the hearing, the opposition was coalescing. Katie Pirtle, representing the Colorado AIDS Project and Planned Parenthood, questioned the "underlying motives" of the proponents. Matthew Miller, the general manager of Tattered Cover Book Store, said the measure raised the "specter of censorship."

While Owens labeled the opponents' testimony "hyperbole," Mares tried to pin him down on his real reasons for pushing the measure.

Referring to the more restrictive obscenity standard of "community acceptance," Mares asked Owens, "You're wishing that we were more toward 'acceptance,' not 'tolerance'?"

Owens wouldn't commit, so Mares questioned whether the "acceptance" standard might be applied to, say, homosexuality. Still no answer.

By this time, it was clear that a majority of the senators weren't going to buy this one. On a motion by Mares to "postpone indefinitely" Owens's measure, the panel agreed to do so, 6-3, punctuated by chairwoman Wham's comment, "I've never voted for censorship."

The committee's action in effect killed the bill, thus sparing the whole Senate a touchy vote. But the bill didn't really die.

In fact, the action got hotter. Downright steamy.
Mund and her troops gathered enough signatures to put the measure on the November 1994 ballot. A court threw out their version, so they tinkered with it, again gathered signatures and got it back on the ballot as Amendment 16.

It was easy to get the signatures: Focus on the Family was throwing its big weight behind the measure. The Colorado Springs-based Christian broadcasting empire propagandized heavily for it, and CHILD hired a petition-gathering firm based in the Springs.

Owens stayed out of the colorful campaign. Feisty Arrington, running that year for a state Senate seat, talked in detail about the horrors of gerbil-jamming and bestiality while he accused his opponents of "scare-mongering" about censorship ("Talking Trash," October 19, 1994). Opponents noted Arrington's apparent fixation on women and dogs--together. He was quoted as saying, "A woman having oral sex with a dog and persons inserting small rodents in the rectum--don't tell me that's in the same category with Catcher in the Rye." Bill Armstrong warned of "enormous danger" from "ACLU pornographers and other anti-family forces." CHILD's main financing came from Bill Pauls, the Denver Tech Center mogul who'd helped bail out close pal Bill Walters, a major figure in the S&L fiasco of the Eighties who eventually fled to California and lived on Pauls's money.

 

Pauls, now a primary developer of land near Denver International Airport, learned his Christian charity at Cherry Hills Community Church, a wealthy evangelical congregation that also claims Armstrong and John Elway as members.

Focus on the Family, which had declared a "culture war" earlier in the decade, had bombarded that church the year before with a "Community Impact Seminar," shocking a packed house with images of KISS's Gene Simmons on a giant screen atop the pulpit saying he wanted to "fuck until my dick fell off." Focus continued to push its theme that there was too much "tolerance" in society, that it's not wise or biblical to tolerate "wrong" ideas and that it should be the goal of every Christian to convince everyone else of this idea.

It didn't work, though. Amendment 16 went down, 63 to 37 percent.

Jamie LaRue encountered Bill Owens more than two years after the 1994 hearing. It was in September 1996, when Douglas County was asking voters to approve increased library funding. LaRue made a brief pitch to the local Republican breakfast club, which was meeting on his home turf at the library; Owens was the main guest.

Afterward, LaRue took Owens on an impromptu tour. "He was most gracious and most complimentary," the librarian recalls. LaRue told Owens about the increasing number of troubling complaints his staff was receiving, like the protest from one patron that Little Red Riding Hood should be pulled from the shelves because Granny takes a drink at the end of it.

Thinking back on that walking tour, LaRue says hopefully of Owens, "If anything, with all this power comes some responsibility."

LaRue and other librarians are worried that the issue will pop up again. Actually, it already has. Amendment 16 was defeated, but that was before everyone plugged into the World Wide Web. Now that libraries have spent millions of dollars to hook up to the Internet, the issue of obscenity is picking up steam. Librarians around the country are wrestling with the problem of what to do about the pornography that comes flowing through the Internet along with everything that's wonderful for their patrons.

Images from around the globe are popping up on public monitors in every library. Web surfers can call up pornographic images while little kids and everyone else walks by.

Back in 1994, librarians were assuring politicians that of course they weren't building collections of pornography.

"Now," says LaRue, speaking of the Internet revolution, "real pornography is coming into the library. We're aghast. We don't want to be redefined as peep shows, where teens can come in and look at dirty pictures."

LaRue says patrons have started objecting to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, since images of naked women flash on screens. "We're going to get sued by the ACLU or the Christian Coalition, no matter which way we go," he adds. "Of course we don't want to deliver pornography. But in our scramble to look moral, we could stop the flow of ideas, especially in such areas as homosexuality and women's rights. We could shut down people's ability to ask questions."

As incoming president of the Colorado Library Association, LaRue is particularly concerned. He's written about it extensively--on the Web, of course (www.sni.net/~jlarue/iff.html).

And he wonders what it means that gubernatorial candidate Owens carried the religious right's cross during the last major statewide debate on what some called obscenity and others called censorship.

"As governor," says LaRue, "Owens would be sympathetic to those who want to restrict materials."

And what materials would be restricted? As Don Mares asked Denise Mund during the 1994 hearings, is it the image of two men kissing?

More and more of Jamie LaRue's patrons may be bothered by such images. The Internet isn't the only thing that's changed libraries. Christian fiction and information used to be on the fringes of library collections. But "over the past five years," LaRue says, "the flood of commentary, ideas and Christian fiction has moved into the mainstream."

In many ways, librarians are the natural foes of conservative propagandists who call for censorship. But based on the sophistication of the Christian right's propaganda, especially the slick magazines and materials churned out by Focus on the Family, LaRue says he has to admit the religious right has the edge in quality over such liberal organizations as People for the American Way. These days, he adds, the right's message is portrayed more effectively than the left's. "Just on the basis of the literature," he says, "the traditional liberal left has lost the common touch."

 

A cultural shift could bring a "clean-it-up, pretty-it-up approach" that might stifle the flow of information, he warns. "Ten years ago, the hot issue was condom distribution in schools. Conservatives used that to inflame moderates," he says. "Every generation takes a swing at something."

But something besides a generation's mood is at work here. Focus on the Family is hammering hard at libraries and urging their followers to do the same; many of the complaints his library receives sound remarkably alike, LaRue says.

LaRue heard a more sophisticated complaint from Owens. During their stroll through the library two years ago, Owens gently lobbied LaRue on the idea that librarians need to "tone it down" when it comes to protesting what they see as censorship.

"He was very deft about it," says LaRue.
And Owens is deft in explaining what his purposes were in pushing SCR 94-1. The measure appeared to be full of subterfuge--hidden motives, hidden agendas--especially in its early form when Owens carried it. But he strongly denies that he practiced any subterfuge.

"I can't speak to others' motivations," he says of his compadres Mund, Malpas and the other out-front members of the religious right. "My reason is a narrow reason. I think communities should have more power than they have in Colorado."

Republicans like Dottie Wham say they really don't know what to expect from Owens if he should become governor. She describes him as being on the "right of the middle" of the GOP, while she's on the "left of the middle." As for the gubernatorial race, she says only, "Tom Norton would make a fine governor."

The right wing of her party scares the hell out of Wham.
"The problem," she says, "and I don't relate this to Bill, is an intolerance of others' views, based on the Bible, literally. Where Bill is on that I have not talked to him.

"But it's so much bigger than he is or the race is. It has to do with the country, whether we continue to go to a theocracy, not a democracy."

The call is a lot easier to make for Democrats. Don Mares recalls SCR 94-1 as clearly part of the religious right's agenda. "And Owens supported it," says Mares. "That gives you some idea where he stands. Of course it raises red flags."

It's the librarians, among others, who will be caught in the middle if the religious right opens a new front in its "culture war."

So Jamie LaRue ponders the prospect of a Governor Owens.
"He's bright, he's extraordinarily astute politically," says LaRue. "And he would get a bully pulpit."

Bill Owens has a sense of humor, and he knows how to use it. As a campaigner, at least, he doesn't come across as a grudge-holder. He schmoozes with the press quite easily and is eager to present himself as just an ordinary guy with ordinary tastes--though he wants to go off the record to try to prove that point.

He doesn't come across as a red-faced fanatic like Barry Arrington or as a militant like Denise Mund, who feels she has to immerse herself in the filth she wants so desperately to stop.

He's been asked whether he supports the Christian right's view that tolerance of "evil" or "wrong" ideas is not a virtue.

"I think we are a multicultural society in which, in fact, we have to have tolerance," he replies. "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."

Not to worry, says Owens. "Sometimes I agree with the religious right on certain issues," he says. "But there hasn't been a master plan."

Then, as he escorts a reporter from his headquarters, Bill Owens sends a wisecrack to his troops. "Okay," he says, "you guys can put the crucifixes back up."

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