(This is a chapter in my unfinished, yet-untitled book about civic participation in Georgia politics. It’s also opposition research madness for those inclined. Enjoy.)
Tom Owens is what happens when no one gives a damn about local government.
Owens wants to replace Elaine Boyer on the DeKalb County commission, now that’s she has resigned and is going to jail.
Owens is also a man amok.
The 62-year-old Vietnam veteran and anti-immigration activist has a years-long history of legal trouble tied to harassment of political figures, acquaintances and romantic targets. He pleaded no contest to a stalking charge in Forsyth County, with a note in the documentation tying his behavior to mental health issues. At least three people have obtained restraining orders against him in the last eight years, the most recent of which expired this year.
One target of his harassment met me at the door of his home with a gun in hand at the mere mention of Owens’ name.
Owens’ apparent ex-fiancee sued him a few years ago, alleging that he financially abandoned their child in 1995. She told me she dropped the suit in part because he continually ducked service of the subpoena, in part because she was too broke to keep chasing him, and in part because she believed he was probably too broke to cover his obligations in any case. Questions of paternity can be fraught, of course. But given Owens’ stated rationale for his candidacy — integrity — I think this is fair game.
Owens also remains in a long-running legal dispute with a mosque built on property behind his house in Doraville. Filings by the Al Maad Al Islami mosque allege that Owens threatened to kill their imam.
Meanwhile, the head of a Christian religious charity found herself filing a police report less than five months ago, complaining that Owens had come to her to her thrift shop to berate her for her insufficient hate toward African Muslims … spitting on the shop doors while he was at it.
Were any of this isolated stuff, it might be ignored. And I might otherwise write off Owens’ run as the delusion of a fringe candidate in any case. It would be easy.
The north DeKalb Republican political establishment has lined up behind former school board member Nancy Jester. She faces former county planning commissioner and attorney Wendy Butler, retired engineer (and two-time Boyer-challenger) Larry Danese and Holmes E. Pyles, an 86-year-old retired civil servant running as an independent.
“Anyone has the right to run for public office,” said State Sen. Fran Millar, a Dunwoody Republican. “I respect Mr. Owens’ service to his country. However, I do not consider him a viable candidate for this position.”
But too many voters have abandoned DeKalb politics to the mendacious and the mad. The AJC and other media outlets have no spare capacity to dive into a local race. A superficially-observed local election leaves Owens with a puncher’s chance in a fight, since a five-way race could go to a thinly-attended December runoff. And the sheer length and breadth of the complaints against Owens merit a word or two. Or a few thousand.
Thomas Mitchell Owens, if nothing else, has a keen sense of self-promotion. He has theatrically leafleted and harangued public figures on far-right anti-immigration issues for years, drawing himself into favor with the more zealous activists in the state. Owens is also a Vietnam vet who rejoined the Army at 55, as perhaps the oldest enlistee in Army history, drawing some Google-able media attention. But he’s plainly hoping to capitalize on his current claim to fame as Boyer’s principal accuser before the county’s ethics board.
Never mind, of course, that his accusations largely consisted of repeating claims made by a very expensive Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation. Let us please forget that Boyer resigned because the FBI had her dead to rights. His name’s on the dotted line on an ethics case.
That was enough to earn the praise of Governor Nathan Deal at a veteran’s event a couple weeks ago. “Well, Tom, I want to thank you for your diligence and your persistence as a citizen to make sure that everyone is held accountable, especially when they’re dealing with taxpayer funds and taxpayer resources,” Deal said while Owens’ cameraperson captured the scene. “You have set a great example of the kind of way that it should be done in a proper and efficient manner, and I congratulate you on that.”
It seems Owens snuck one by the governor’s team at the event. Owens’ friend and fellow Boyer complainant Joe Newton had staked out the post-event reception with a video camera, said Deal spokeswoman Jennifer Talaber. “This is not an endorsement and this was not about Elaine Boyer.” As Owens approached, Newton told the governor that the guy started a P-Card abuse investigation and asked him to comment on it, she said. “There was no mention of him replacing her or endorsing his candidacy at all.”
And, of course, Owens’ site carefully avoids saying anything more than that.
Owens has been good at finding the limelight. NPR covered his reenlistment in 2008 as a 55-year-old, 6-foot-3, 230-pound Army Reserve specialist. Owens first served in the Army in Vietnam as a 17-year-old. He was pushed out of the active duty Army during a reduction in force in the ’80s, before earning a full 20-year retirement, and then again from the reserves in a second RIF. But when the Army raised the enlistment age during the Iraq War, his prior service allowed him to re-up.
“I didn’t join the army to be behind a desk somewhere,” Owens told NPR. “My intention is to be on the front lines with them supporting the war effort the best I can.”
His reserve unit – an ammo company in north Georgia — subsequently deployed without him, his former company commander Thomas Boswick told me, saying little more. Owens retired from the Army for good shortly after, presumably leaving him with a pension and free time on his hands to annoy reasonable people.
The highest-profile example of this might be Owens’ ongoing suit with a mosque built on land adjacent to his home in Doraville. Owens accused the mosque and associated school of “excessive noise, traffic, sanitary and stormwater backups or overflows, and state of disrepair” that has damaged his own abutting property.
But at heart, the dispute looks like it’s about money.
Zillow pegs Owens’ home on Beacon Drive in Doraville, near the Home Depot, at about $100,000 today. Al Maad Al Islami claims the house was probably worth less than $75,000 when they offered $150,000 for it.
Owens refused. His counteroffer was $500,000, according to the mosque’s filings.
When Al Maad Al Islami refused the crazy bingo counter, Owens “became belligerent, hostile and threatening,” according to the mosque’s countersuit. Owens began agitating for code enforcement to cite the mosque. The mosque was eminently cite-able, to be clear, but Owens called often enough for code enforcement to ask him to knock it off. And when code enforcement quit returning his calls, he began haranguing them in public.
“We don’t need any more code enforcement people, not to hire any more,” Owens said at a recent forum in Dunwoody. “I go down there in my investigation and half of them are sleeping in their vehicles down in Decatur.”
Owens called WSB and Jodie Fleischer for some traditional hit-and-run TV coverage that plays well to the anti-immigration set. The supposedly “investigative” story highlights the code enforcement issues. She interviewed Tom Owens while he apparently was wearing his military uniform. Fleischer says nothing about Owens’ financial stake in the case. That would have required reporting.
“Someone is harassing us, and you’re helping him,” an imam told the news reporter at his door.
The mosque’s counterclaim alleges that Owens “threatened to kill the Imam of the mosque,” a charge Owens denied in filings. Owens has claimed the opposite according to police records — that the imam threatened to kill him. They’ve been back and forth in court ever since.
Zubair Faridi, a member of the mosque who filed a police report in March 2012 alleging harassment by Owens, said they’ve done whatever they could to accommodate him. “We’ve treated him as a neighbor, and we want a relationship. We try to make him comfortable, and we’ve been very open with him. He said he wanted to sell his property. We gave him an offer that’s above fair market value.” His tone suggested deep irritation – exasperation, really, about the dispute, along with concerns about drawing more harassment by speaking openly about Owens’ behavior.
Despite the vitriol, Faridi remained philosophical.
“I always wish him well,” he said. “It’s part of my faith.”