While a chorus sang, "He's got the whole committee in his hands,' at this year's annual roast of Maryland legislators, Del. Leo E. Green (D-Prince George's) was patting his head and then sticking his fingers in his ears - all to the amusement of the audience.
Green was mimmicking one of the most unlikely heroes of this year's General Assembly, House Judiciary Committee chairman Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery).
Owens is not the stereotype of the white hat, bleeding heart reformer, an image most often ascribed by his fellow legislators to Owen's colleagues from Montgomery County, the state's richest and most liberal political subdivision.
In fact, Owens, a 59-year-old secondterm legislator from the Wheaton-Rockville area is none of the above and proud of it.
Owens is chairman of the House's most conservative committee, and as such he is responsible for directing floor fights in support of such emotional issues as the death penalty, a fight he led last month with unbridled enthusiasm.
Although he objects to being characterized as a "blood thirsty bastard", as one foe of capital punishment suggested in the heat of discussion off the House floor, Owens enjoys the spotlight, even if it means making himself the target of reformers, many of whom reside within his own delegation.
Green, who evoked howls at the follies by mitating the mannerisms that have become so familiar to his colleagues in the last six years, is one of the many legislators who often oppose Owens politically, but who express admiration for the man.
This year's show was called, "The Unfavorable Report," which also could have been a tribute to Owens' committee. The Judiciary is the busiest of the six major House committees, having been assigned to weigh 588 bills this session.
As of March 25, only 81 bills had won the approval of the Judiciary Committee, assuring that its reputation as the "killer" or "graveyard" [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] ison, Constitutional and Administrative Law approved 87 of 221, Economic Matters 110 of 351 and Environmental Matters 111 of 337.
Owens appears to relish the criticism of his adversaries. He annually gets the lowest rating among his delegation from the liberal Alliance for Democratic Reform, a rating he regards almost as if it were a medal.
Owens doesn't hide his views. One legislator said, "You can tell how he feels about a bill by his mannerisms - he'll shake his head, throw down his papers. Patience doesn't come easy for him."
He reserves his harshest pronouncements for ideas whose time has not come - at least not to him. For example, last year during testimony on a bill to revise laws on sexual behavior, Owens said, "People are coming up to me and saying, 'What are you going to do, authorize queers?' . . . Well, there's going to be no legislation of homosexuals," And, of course, there wasnt.
This year, after a hearing on a bill that would ban job discrimination against homosexuals, Owen's staff shuttled him into his office, apparently fearful he would give reporters a similar remark. This year he was ready for the questions, and before he was whisked away, his only comment was, "This didn't convince me. This bill isn't going anywhere."
Ask Owens if he rules his committee as a martinet, and he'll tell you only that he never tells anyone how to vote, that he merely usually happens to reflect the collective opinion of the its 23-members.
Del. David L. Scall (D-Montgomery), who has proposed a raft of bills aimed at what he calls "returning" the legal profession, has seen nearly all of them inteered in Owen's graveyard. Although the two men are formally cordiall, Scull says he has detected some "tension" and "excitedness" in Owen's reactions to his proposals.
Whether the question involves abortion, minority rights or other standards of the liberal community, Owens believes the answer "is not revolution, it's evolution," adding "some (changes) you'll never do."
Del. Donald B. Robertson, chairman of the all-Democrat Montgomery House delegation, acknowledges that he and Owens have "disagreed on hundreds of things," but concedes that Owens has played a "generally constructive, positive role."
Some members of the delegation find it ironic that the member most out of step with the delegation majority commands the most authority in the legislature.
Owens won't agree that he is out of step, even in Montgomery County.
"You certainly couldn't call me a liberal," said Owens, who considers himself the most conservative member of the delegation, "but I'm very much for personal rights."
A native of Washington, and the oldest of five sons and a daughter of a government workers, Owens attended the old Tech High and Columbus University, a law school, then located at 18th and M Streets NW, that since has become a part of Catholic University.
He was admitted to the D.C. bar in 1941, but before he could begin practice, World War II began, and he was drafted.
After graduating from officers candidate school as a lieutenant, Owens was assigned to the 1st Infantry where, as a platoon leader with the combat engineers, he participated in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily ("the first regular wave") and Normandy. It was during the latter battle that a faulty parachute flare exploded in his right hand, causing Owens to lose parts of two fingers. After 4 1/2 months in a hospital in England, where his recovery was delayed by malaria, he was released "just in time" for the Battle of the Bulge.
Except for a few months as a civilian in 1947, Owens remained in the army until 1962, when as a retired lieutenant colonel he settled with his German-born wife Waldtraut (Trudy) in a Montgomery County subdivision called Wheaton Woods. After taking a refresher course, Owens was admitted to the Maryland bar and opened an office in Rockville.
In 1966, a natural inclination toward politics had steered him to the campaign headquarters of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Thomas Finan.
Finan lost, but the campaign only whetted Owen's enthusiasm. He became president of his neighborhood civic association, a traditional entry-level post to partisan politics in Montgomery, and by 1968, offered himself as a candidate for the constitutional convention.
"Nah, I didn't win," Owens mused, but, because "I'm a door knocker,' people remembered him, and in 1970, as a party-endorsed candidate, he was elected to the legislature.
During his first term, he gained the reputation as a "worker," and as several colleagueshon the Judiciary committee were rewarded with judgeships by Gov. Marvin Mandel, Owens moved up quickly, becoming chairman in 1973.
Owens "probably" could have had a judgeship of his own by now, but he said, "I'm really not interested. I'd rather be here. If this ever stop being fun . . ." he said but his voice trailed off and his face widened in a grin that indicated that time is still far in the future.