Underdog GOP hopeful ready for run at Owens


In the race for Anne Arundel county executive, Republican Phillip D. Bissett is confident he can beat Democratic incumbent Janet S. Owens at her own game of dark-horse politics come the Nov. 5 general election.

Bissett, a former state legislator, is betting he can unseat the better-known and well-funded Owens just as she toppled County Executive John G. Gary, a Republican who also boasted a rich campaign treasury, four years ago.

"When Janet Owens won four years ago, it was not a mandate on her ability, it was a mandate to replace John Gary," said Bissett, who was appointed to the House of Delegates in 1991 and served until 1998.

Bissett was defeated that year by Del. C. Richard D'Amato, a Democrat and former Capitol Hill staffer who charged that Bissett missed 229 votes during the 1998 legislative session. Bissett took the first step toward a political comeback in the primary by easily defeating Republican Tom Angelis of Davidsonville to capture the GOP nomination for county executive. Now he's coming out swinging.

Owens "had a chance to prove herself, and she hasn't done it," said Bissett, 46.

"I know I can do it," Bissett said of the county executive's job. "And I've got a record to prove it."

Democrats say Bissett won't succeed.

"The situation is entirely different," said Michael F. Gilligan, a Glen Burnie attorney who is co-chairman of the Owens campaign. "John Gary had really high negatives and Janet does not. ... As the old George [H.W.] Bush said, 'It ain't going to happen.'"

An immediate hurdle for Bissett, who must reach out to voters who aren't familiar with his history as a member of the General Assembly, is money.

Campaign finance reports filed Aug. 30 show that Bissett had raised $70,000 and had about $9,000 in the bank. Owens, who has collected more than $515,000 since she was elected four years ago, had roughly $228,000 left to spend on the fall campaign.

Both candidates have promised to raise more money.

"We have an aggressive plan of attack and we will stick to it," said Bissett, who added that many political supporters told him that they would contribute to his campaign after the primary race.

Owens' experience proves that the candidate with the most money doesn't always win.

When she challenged former County Councilwoman Diane R. Evans in the 1998 Democratic primary, Evans had about 20 times more money than Owens.

By the 1998 general election, Gary raised $650,000 - a county record. Owens had collected about $300,000 by Election Day.

"A lot of what Janet raised in 1998 was after the primary race," said Terry R. Gilleland Jr., chairman of the local Republican Central Committee and a candidate for state Senate in the 32nd District. "I think Phil can do the same thing."

Gilleland and other county Republicans are holding out hope that Bissett can recapture the county's top elected position for the party. Since 1964, the year the county converted to a charter form of government, the two Democratic county executives have been O. James Lighthizer and Owens.

Although Angelis and Bissett had few nice things to say about one another during the primary campaign, Gilleland said it's important that Angelis, a high school teacher and former county recreation and parks director, endorse Bissett. The move, he said, could motivate more of the GOP faithful to line up behind the nominee.

"It's in the best interest of the party, and Tom should do it if he wants to remain active in the party," Gilleland said.

Angelis, who has not returned telephone calls since his defeat, has been coy about his endorsement. Recently, he said he would have to think about it and talk it over with GOP leaders. Angelis has said he would not endorse Owens.

County Democrats, who also captured a majority on the County Council in 1998, say they aren't about to slack off and risk defeat Nov. 5.

"The race is on, and we are going to work very hard," said Candace H. Beckett, chairwoman of the county's Democratic Central Committee.

Beckett added that Owens doesn't have the same kind of public relations problems as Gary, who openly feuded with Carol S. Parham, superintendent of schools at the time, and was viewed by many residents as overly friendly with developers.

"I don't think there will be a vote for change this time around," Beckett said, adding that Owens has tried to reach out to residents and deal fairly with their problems.

Many, including some Republicans, think Bissett will need all the help he can get in the race against Owens, 58, who was born and raised on a farm in Lothian.

A survey by an Anne Arundel Community College professor whose students interviewed voters at five polling places Tuesday, found that Bissett has a lot of ground to cover.

"It's going to be a major uphill battle to beat Janet Owens," said Dan Nataf, who heads the Center for the Study of Local Issues at the community college.

In the county, 46 percent of voters are registered as Republicans compared with 54 percent registered as Democrats.

"He's going to need every vote he can get," said Nataf, who added that Bissett might be able to win wider support if he can ride the coattails of gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who apparently has made inroads among Democrats and independents.

County residents have voted Republican before.

Gary was elected county executive in 1994 with 53 percent of the vote. In 1998, county residents voted in large numbers for Republican gubernatorial nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey. And in 2000, George W. Bush outpaced Al Gore at local polls.

One Owens supporter said voters will make their own choices among local candidates, regardless of who wins at the state level.

"Democrats could vote for Ehrlich but will still vote for local candidates they like," said William Turc Sr., a former state delegate and chairman of the local Democratic Central Committee.

Bissett, a former supermarket warehouseman who was appointed to the House of Delegates in 1991 after the apparent suicide of Del. Aris Allen and elected to a four-year term in 1994, is preparing for possible debates against Owens.

Owens' land preservation and development records, as well as education spending, have become key campaign issues. Bissett also has criticized her use of two county police officers as bodyguards.

For her part, Owens has said she will carefully review Bissett's General Assembly voting record. She also could make political hay of his philosophy on firearms. Much has been made of the fact that Bissett has a license to carry a concealed weapon and has completed training to use a gun.

In a likely sign of things to come, Bissett took aim at the high-profile role that Owens' husband, Baltimore attorney David M. Sheehan, has taken in the Owens administration.

"I'll challenge her and her husband to a debate tomorrow," he said. "I want to take on whoever it is who is running this government."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad