A man of integrity, kindness, intelligence and a fierce advocate of liberal values. That’s how those who knew former Josephine County Democratic Central Committee Chair Howard Owens describe him. Howard was Chairman December 2016 to May 2017 when his health forced him to step down. In 2004 Howard ran for the state senate seat in Oregon’s 3rd District, bringing attention to his sense of fairness for all, support for a living wage for workers, healthcare, and the environment. Howard connected with voters well. His big smile, firm handshake and wry sense of humor could win over even those who disagreed with his policies. He was proud of being a liberal and didn’t try to hide behind other labels, earning him respect as a man of principle. He didn’t win that election, but did raise the profile and respect of Democrats in a very conservative district.
Current JCDCC Chair Brian Clark said the first time he met Howard, he realized he was in the presence of a sage.
“I first met Howard when I showed up at the Democratic Central Committee meeting in August, 2016. During the discussions that were happening, I noticed the deference that the other members gave Howard whenever he spoke. Whatever he said was right on the money and well thought out, and I knew I was in the presence of a sage. I first spoke with Howard when he came into our temporary campaign office in October of that year while I was staffing it. He was fresh out of the hospital from a bout with pneumonia. While he was there, this big, hulking man came in wearing a hat that read “Korean War Veteran,” who had evidently been to our office numerous times before to “talk” and find out more about Hillary from us. I suspect the Republican office had been sending him over to hassle us. He didn’t really want to learn more about Hillary, he just wanted to disparage her. Howard attempted to have a conversation with him, but when it became obvious that the man wasn’t interested in having a real conversation, Howard shut him down by telling him that, ‘It looks like we don’t have anything more to talk about so goodbye, Sir.’ The man left. Then Howard told me that he was thinking about running for chairperson of the JCDCC, and he wanted to know if I would be willing to run as his vice chair. I agreed. How could one refuse an offer from such a negotiator?”
Howard Owens was born April 14, 1930, during the depths of the Great Depression in the South. His dad was an itinerant laborer, and Howard grew up knowing poverty, hard work and injustice. With the various hats he’d worn throughout his lifetime and a lot of hard work, he made it his life’s mission to fight against poverty and injustice.
After a stint in the Navy, he ended up in Los Angeles and got a job working for General Motors. He became a member of the UAW and soon ran to become a union committeeman. He learned that the union stood for ideas like fairness and equality. While in the union, he worked to allow Hispanics, African Americans, and women to be hired by GM.
Howard worked his way up the leadership in the UAW, eventually becoming the assistant regional director for Region 6, which includes most of the states west of the Rockies. He worked to promote a jobs training program (Jobs Corp) and became its executive director when it was split off from the union. He worked to negotiate moving rights and severance packages for UAW workers who were experiencing plant closings.
Howard’s experiences included going to Japan to meet with UAW representatives, and he negotiated conditions for UAW members in a UAW-Toyota joint venture. He was asked to go with a delegation to China in the 1970’s to meet with Chinese unions. He went to the USSR with a group of labor representatives to meet with their union reps. and drank a lot of vodka. Of course, the unions there were an arm of the government. He was sent to Vienna by the Department of Labor to attend a labor conference, and he learned a lot about the European Common Market and how the U.S. could be making better trade agreements with other countries.
After retiring from the UAW, Howard continued fighting for the little guy. He and his wife, Dixie, moved to Sacramento and he became the President of the Congress of California Seniorswhich he made stronger. He organized protests and rallies for senior health care issues. He also built up a group called Health Access, which worked to get a single-payer health care system in California. It got on the ballot but didn’t pass.
Eventually Howard and Dixie moved to Grants Pass. They did a fundraiser for the Democratic Party, which was in dire straits at the time, and raised over nine thousand dollars. He ran for the state legislature when nobody else would do it to make sure the Republican running had an opponent. He lost by a 60-40 margin, which was pretty remarkable knowing this area and the fact that the Republicans had been running unopposed in Southern Oregon.
Howard and Dixie were pillars of the Democratic Central Committee for almost 13 years, but they moved back to Sacramento for health reasons. Once stabilized, they moved back to Grants Pass about five years ago. Howard attended meetings but didn’t take an active role in Democratic politics until Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Even though his health was precarious, Howard said he felt a tremendous responsibility to organize resistance to Republican dominance, from the local to national level.
Howard may be best remembered by the general public as the guy on the scooter in the last two Boatnik Parades where he cheerfully handed out candy to kids in the crowd, following the Democrats’ entry from beginning to end. Howard always managed to have a good time, even in his last years. A celebration of Howard’s life will be held Saturday, January 19, 2 pm at the UU Church, 129 NW “E” Street, in Grants Pass.