The signs outside the Statehouse today were directed at one person.
"Joe Owens: My Brother and How Many Others?" said one. "Senate Says Yes, Motor Vehicle Administration Says Yes, Only Joe Owens Says No!" said another.
The sign-bearers were the survivors -- the sisters, the parents, the nieces and nephews -- of persons killed by drunk drivers. Their target was Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House of Delegates Judiciary Committe taking testimony on the subject of drunk driving. To hear the picketers tell it he is the largest single roadblock to reform.
"He's the only one stopping the bills from going through," asserted Wendy Basile of Hyattsville, whose brother was killed in an accident last January. b"I'm sure it's not only Joe," said Charles Tompkins, a Greenbelt man whose son met a similar fate in October, "but he just seems to be the focal point."
With more drunk driving bills than ever before the General Assembly -- l06 by the latest count -- and the proponents better organized than in the past, Joe Owens has indeed become the focal point. As usual, a package of drunk driving measurers has won Senate approval and now awaits the action of his key committee.
"When they want to blame you, you're influential," said the silver-haired lawmaker who wears the mantle of villain but insists it doesn't fit. "Whatever the committee wants to do, I only have one vote."
Even liberal members of his conservative committee say the public perception of Owens as the heavy-handed godfather is unfair to the man who, they say, earns respect by thoughtful presentation of his views. He only votes to break to tie, and although his views on a subject are often known, there is not wrathful revenge in store for dissenters, they say.
There is another, more difficult problem for those seeking change from the committee, 14 of whose 22 members are lawyers. "Basically, as a group, it's quite conservative about making new laws," said Del. Anne S. Perkins (D-Baltimore), who often disagrees with Owens. "Philosophically a large number on the committee are with him on issues."
Members of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), a growing grassroots organization fighting for tough new laws, have tried to lobby other members of Owens' committee. They recently mailed each a questionnaire, seeking commitments to their cause, but only three of the panel members have replied.
The law they want most would lower the level of alcohol legally permissible in a driver's blood, and, as it happens, this is the law Owens wants least. He argues that the change would only clog the courts with more cases and would result in charges being plea-bargained down to reckless driving or some other lesser crime unrelated to alcohol.
The proponents say no such thing will happen. Instead, they say, the public's perception of how much one can drink legally will change, saving lives in the process. They also note that the proposal, part of a package that emerged from a governor's task force last year, retains two levels of criminality in measuring blood alcohol content to permit some prosecutorial and judicial leeway.
The proponents say they don't expect Owens to change his mind but want him to "let the committee vote its conscience," as one put it. "He said he never twists their arms," said a skeptical Cindi Lamb, leader of MADD in Maryland and the mother of a young daughter paralyzed for life because of a drunk driver. "I said, 'Baloney.'"
Visiting Owens recently, Lamb hinted that his seat was at stake and, depending on how things went, MADD might organize opposition within his Rockville district in the next election. "I have to do what I think is right," Owens said later. "If people go after you, what can you do?"
On Monday, the legions of MADD marched in front of the Statehouse carrying candles, an event designed to generate publicity they hoped would translate into votes.
A rumor then filtered through the Statehouse that at today's hearing Owens would hear only from officials and politicians, excluding the angry citizens certain to appear.
What he did, instead, was to begin the afternoon proceedings with a parade of officials, assuring that the 33 citizens who had signed up to speak would be excluded from prime time television coverage.
Said Cindi Lamb, who had to leave before her turn to testify came, "Whatever we get is better than what we had before, which is nothing. We've learned a lot, and next year, we're going to be back stronger than ever."