Either Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, truly lets his conscience guide his votes, or he just enjoys living on the political edge by taking stands sure to create controversy at home.
The latest example is his decision to become the first Utah member of Congress in memory to vote for any type of federal gun control - risky politics in a state full of deer hunters and other gun enthusiasts.He decided to vote this week for a bill requiring a seven-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns to allow criminal background checks. It is called the "Brady bill," named after James Brady - Ronald Reagan's press secretary who was wounded in the assassination attempt by John Hinckley.
Taking a politically risky stand is nothing new for Owens. Some of his other recent ones included:
- Voting against allowing the Persian Gulf war.
- Voting against a Constitutional amendment to outlaw burning or desecrating the U.S. flag.
- Voting for public funding of abortions for poor women in cases of rape, incest or threat to the health of the mother (including mental health).
While such stands may at first seem akin to suicide because they appear opposite to Utah majority mainstream, Owens has shown smooth political skill in minimizing political damage from them. He even managed to use them to pick up admiration and loyalty of many people who oppose his stands.
Owens is repeating some steps used in earlier controversies to control damage from his support for the Brady bill.
Step one seems to be pointing out that he votes his conscience, and that many voters like that in times when honesty among politicians is perceived to be rare. It makes him look trustworthy, honest and brave - which offsets the opposition many voters may have to his controversial positions.
As he said last week, "I vote for what I think is good policy, then hold my breath and hope things work out."
That's almost exactly what he said last year after his vote against the flag amendment: "You do the right thing and hope that in the end people agree with you or are adequately tolerant."
Step two for Owens in politically risky situations seems to be to take the offensive and work hard to explain his views. And he often says his position contrary to the Utah mainstream is taken only to protect something else that is even more vital to Utahns.
For example, on the flag vote, he wrote editorial columns and appeared on talk shows to say that while he despises burning flags, he worried the proposed amendment could damage First Amendment rights of speech - which he said was more important to protect.
With the Brady bill, he again wasted no time after he announced his position to write an editorial column to say he is voting for "crime control" instead of gun control. He pointed out it affects only handguns - not the hunting rifles many Utahns enjoy. And also, even Ronald Reagan supports the bill too.
Step three is Owens usually stresses that his positions are based on many of the values that other Utahns share.
With the war vote, he wanted war only when all possible methods to avoid it were exhausted - and immediately backed President Bush once his side lost to show a united front against Iraq. With abortion, he stresses how he opposes it in most cases - but favors public funding in those cases where he feels it is acceptable.
With the Brady bill, he stresses he opposes most federal gun control and talks of his "friends at the National Rifle Association." He talks of how he would prefer an NRA-backed bill calling for instant crime checks - but says technology won't allow that yet. So the Brady bill is the next best thing.
Such political quickness on his feet has resulted in the abortion, flag and war votes not hurting Owens in the polls or past re-election bids. It will be interesting to see whether it can keep the Brady bill from shooting him in the foot.