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Owings launches bid to topple O'Malley

Owings announcement.jpgGeorge W. Owings III, a former Maryland veterans affairs secretary, on Wednesday launched his long-shot Democratic primary challenge to Gov. Martin O'Malley, whom Owings criticized for raising taxes, making "devastating" budget cuts and seeking to repeal the death penalty.

"The time to return to a day of good government is upon us," Owings, 64, told more than 100 supporters huddled on a courthouse lawn in Prince Frederick.

Owings compiled a conservative record on issues including abortion, gun rights and tobacco during 16 years as a state delegate from Calvert County. He was tapped in 2004 to serve as former Republican governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veterans affairs secretary.

During Wednesday morning's announcement speech, Owings chided O'Malley, who dismissed him as secretary four months into his administration, on a range of issues. Owings said the 2006 campaign slogan O'Malley used in his race against Ehrlich -- "Leadership That Works" -- had turned out to be "a veiled and empty promise."

Owings said that a $1.4 billion package of tax increases supported by O'Malley in 2007 had "killed business." The taxes were approved in a special session aimed at shoring up the state's long-term budget problems.

Owings said that O'Malley had used "a butcher's knife" to make budget cuts since then. The challenger acknowledged that the state faces tough fiscal choices but said he would take a different approach to budgeting than O'Malley.

"You start with a zero budget and build from the ground up," Owings said.

Owings was also critical of the "personal involvement" of O'Malley in seeking to repeal the death penalty. Bills to abolish capital punishment have failed in the legislature in each of the past three years.

Owings said he believes there are crimes "that exceed the need for compassion" for which the death penalty is appropriate.

It remains to be seen whether Owings will gain any traction against the far-better-funded Democratic incumbent in a primary that traditionally attracts the party's more liberal voters.

In the fall, O'Malley rolled out early endorsements from more than 300 Democratic elected officials.

In a blog posting prepared for Wednesday, Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Turnbull called Owings "a loyal appointee of Bob Ehrlich."

"He may be a nice enough guy, but to be honest no one in the state or especially the Democratic Party is clamoring for a return to the Ehrlich administration," Turnbull wrote in a posting emailed to reporters. Party officials said it would appear later on The OnLine State.

O'Malley campaign manager Tom Russell declined to comment directly on Owings, saying that the governor "is focused right now on doing everything he can do to create jobs and make the tough decisions that Maryland needs in this difficult time."

By John Wagner  |  January 6, 2010; 1:17 PM ET
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