He has a doctorate in physics, a law degree and 15 years' experience as an environmental activist. And, by his own admission, he's a long shot.

William Johnston is running as an independent for the District 29A House of Delegates seat, against incumbent Democratic Delegate George W. Owings III and Republican challenger Edward B. Finch.

Both Owings and Finch began running last spring for the seat, which includes southern Anne Arundel and the northern half of Calvert County. But because of the difficulty obtaining signatures to be certified as an independent, Johnston didn't begin running until August.

His campaign has consisted mostly of door-to-door visits, letters to the editor and appearances at candidates' forums. Only recently has he begun to post signs. His fund raisers have been "big busts," in his own words, coinciding with a tornado and a gale.

Yet few would question Johnston's contributions to the district. He played a key role in obtaining nitrogen removal capability for a new sewage treatment plant for Chesapeake Beach and North Beach, and stopped a Prince Frederick sewage treatment plant that was discharging into Parker's Creek.

"Bill has been able to get a lot of things done through sheer tenacity that other people couldn't get done," said J.D. Murray, a former Calvert County Democratic Central Committee member. "I've been to hearings where he's spoken to people for hours, wearing them out. He's a single-issue candidate, but it's a very important issue."

Johnston, 53, a resident of Huntingtown, balks at the single-issue label. "The environment covers so many things," he said. He favors growth controls, something he said not only would protect the environment, but also would result in fewer services and lower costs.

He also touts himself as the only candidate who supports abortion rights. Both Finch and Owings support legalized abortion only when the mother's life is in danger or in cases of rape or incest.

Johnston, who works as a patent lawyer, wants the state to form a volunteer cleanup squad to respond to oil spills on the Chesapeake Bay. He wants the state to send a message to Congress opposing proposals to increase the national immigration rate, saying more people would further threaten natural resources.

"You just can't go on forever," Johnston said. "What we assimilate doesn't help the rest of the world. It just swamps us."

Johnston isn't the only candidate with environmental credentials. Finch, 65, is a retired judge for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "I'm an environmentalist, too, but I don't go as far as he does," Finch said.

An active Republican since he retired three years ago, Finch hopes to break the Democrats' monopoly on political power, both in the district and the state. "The governor's got the Democrats in his pocket," he said.

"Whatever he wants, he gets. There's no reason for a deficit in the state of Maryland."

He criticizes incumbent Owings' record. "People are always saying what a great guy he is, but what has he done?" Finch asked. "I've got a lot on my agenda. I realize I'm going to be a novice delegate, but they're going to hear from me."

Finch wants the state to control spending, while at the same time making education a priority. He wants to control the influence of political action committees in the legislature, and clarify the non-tidal wetlands regulations created to protect the Chesapeake Bay.

He's counting on an endorsement from former Republican Representative Marjorie Holt and an increase in Republican voters in the district to get him elected. And he said he expects to do well in southern Anne Arundel, where he raised 10 children and lived for 25 years before moving to Chesapeake Beach three years ago.

Owings, 45, also expects to do well in Arundel, where he has lobbied to improve a failing sewage treatment plant in Rose Haven and battled a proposed 600-acre sand and gravel plant in Bristol.

He was appointed in 1988 to fill the seat, which was vacated when Delegate Thomas Rymer was named a Calvert County Circuit Court Judge.

Before that, Owings ran unsuccessfully for Calvert County Commissioner in 1978 and 1982, and was elected to the Calvert County Democratic Central Committee in 1986.

Owings said constituent service and local issues have been his forte.

"Hopefully the people that I've helped over the last three, four years have a long enough memory to know they have someone in there who's working hard for them," he said.

A mortgage banker who lives in the Calvert County community of Owings, Owings has issued no position papers and only one promise: "I promise to work to the best of my ability to satisfy the needs of my constituents," he said. "I'm presenting what I've done the last three years as the type of legislation they could expect if they send me back to Annapolis."

He proposed 18 bills last year, the most of Arundel's 18 state lawmakers. Eight of the bills passed, all dealing specifically with Calvert County.

A bill he proposed, making it illegal to discriminate against smokers was defeated, as was a proposal to require young men to register for the draft before receiving state scholarships. A proposal to protect Maryland citizens' right to bear arms through a constitutional amendment also failed.

His colleagues say he can be brash and impetuous. He has been criticized for his ties to Annapolis attorney Bruce Bereano, who represents the tobacco industry. But Owings also has been praised for his hard work on the Administrative and Constitutional Law Committee and on behalf of his constituents.

"He's done a lot of work for people, constituent service and otherwise," said Anne Arundel County Council chairwoman Virginia Clagett, D-West River.

"I would imagine George is doing well, especially with how hard he's worked in this county."

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