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A silent end to a very quiet career

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The entire 21st Congressional District was caught with mouths agape yesterday when Rep. Bill Owens announced he would not seek another term. Reporter after reporter told me that the people they were getting reactions from were genuinely surprised by the suddenness of the decision.

Mr. Owens has had three royal political battles to reach and retain his seat. In only one of the three elections he’s been involved in in the past five years has he received 50 percent of the votes. His first two elections were decided by wild-card candidates who split the electorate and handed the seat to Mr. Owens. In the 2012 election, Mr. Owens beat Matt Doheny by two percentage points — 50-48 — to gain his first pure majority. And now he’s done.

It would be hard to fault someone for deciding that fighting such a grueling battle every two years is not worth the effort. To keep a seat in the House of Representatives today means to be fundraising all year, every year, without remission. The two year term is fine for the public, who can quickly respond to the acts of their representative, but it has to be hell on the office holders. It is very expensive to run for Congress today. When Bill Owens tossed in the towel, he had at least $448,000 in his war chest, based on his October report to the Federal Election Commission. His most serious Republican pursuer, Elise Stefanik, had $165,000. Much, much more will be raised and spent before the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, when the next member of Congress for the 21st district of New York will be chosen.

If you were to do a simple cost-benefit analysis of running for Congress, considering that job satisfaction is somehow quantifiable, there may never be justification for doing so. Mr. Owens told a Washington friend of mine that he has become disenchanted with the job, dissatisfied with the way Congress works. Even though he was a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, he found that post less satisfying than he had hoped. And with the gridlock in Congress and the seeming inability for the sides to reach any manner of consensus, it must be frustrating to all but the most zealous ideologues or fevered politicians.

I get the sense that Mr. Owens would have little truck with those types. He appears to be someone who likes to see results; his work on economic development in the Plattsburgh area, his adopted hometown, would appear to be a more gratifying arena for his talents and temperament. With economic development, you have a clear goal and when you’re done, if you’re successful, the fruits of your labor are obvious. In the House of Representatives, goals can be elusive and successes may not always be seen.

Mr. Owens has been a very conservative-minded member of the Democratic caucus. His most liberal vote may well have been his first, when he voted in favor of the Affordable Care Act. On most other issues, he has been moderate at best, slightly conservative at times. You could rely on him not to stray too close to the left guardrail and he didn’t swing much over to the right shoulder — centerline politics has been his hallmark.

And that has not been a liability in the 21st district. Much of the district is Republican, but not so much tea-party Republican as Rockefeller Republican. President Obama has carried the district, even after the Affordable Care Act became law, and there are solid Democratic counties (St. Lawrence, for example) that have staunchly supported Mr. Owens.

Along with his moderate political views, however, Mr. Owens has had a very low-key demeanor. His statements are always measured — sometimes infuriatingly so — and he almost always seems to lack passion, to lack the fire that you sometimes want to see in a politician. And perhaps this, more than anything, explains why Bill Owens has had enough.

He has been a stalwart supporter of agriculture while in office, but he has not developed the understanding of his predecessor, John McHugh, of the pressing, unrelenting importance of Fort Drum to all of the north country, and the state. People who work hard to keep Fort Drum open view Mr. Owens as a lukewarm supporter, and he has thus not generated much support in that crowd of mostly movers and shakers.

And he has not in any measure stood out in the state’s congressional delegation. He is the antithesis of the state’s two U.S. Senators, fellow Democrats Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Those two are very, very good at the political game, never missing a chance to attach their names to any agenda that is important to New Yorkers. Mr. Owens seems reticent, reluctant to join in the credit or seek the applause that his colleagues so diligently pursue.

This is no criticism of either Mrs. Gillibrand or Mr. Schumer, who serve this state well. It is, however, an indication that Bill Owens might not have the “fire in his belly” needed to stay in office over the long haul. And to want to stay in Congress, you have to be a little hungry.

Mr. Owens will serve out the next 11 months in a Congress that has already shown little taste for legislating. The agenda the Republican leadership has proposed for the year would indicate that 2014, an important election year for both parties, will see even less activity than the pathetic events of 2013, when government shut down and a debt-ceiling crisis was very narrowly averted. That means that Mr. Owens, in the minority in a do-nothing House, can finish up his Congressional career by doing needlepoint and setting up his next job. It will be a silent end to a very quiet career. And that may be just what Bill Owens had hoped for.

Perry White is city editor of the Watertown Daily Times. You can reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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