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First Democrat to represent region in Congress since Civil War calling it quits



CANTON - After more than four years in office and with 11 months to go in his third term representing New York’s 21st Congressional District, U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, announced Tuesday he would not run for re-election in 2014.

The announcement came as a surprise to many and even, in some respects, to Mr. Owens himself.

In a conference call with reporters, Mr. Owens said that he first thought of stepping aside six weeks ago. Back then, it was only an idea in the back of his mind — an idea he said kept growing.

After a series of conversations with his family, Mr. Owens said he came to the decision over the Christmas holiday.

It was a decision with which he struggled, he said.

In an election year where Mr. Owens was generally favored by political analysts over any one of a diverse field of Republican challengers, media outlets were not content to let him go quietly.

The announcement about his decision was supposed to come Wednesday morning, but the news was leaked by an “avaricious” local media, Mr. Owens said.

Mr. Owens denied that his decision was motivated by health issues.

“There are no health issues, at least none that I’m aware of,” Mr. Owens said. Or by scandal: “If there’s something out there, I don’t know it,” he said.

He simply wants to spend more time with his family, he told reporters.

“This decision is really one that goes toward spending time with my family,” Mr. Owens said.

Mr. Owens may be the first Democrat elected to represent the north country in Congress since the late 1800s, but before that he was an attorney by trade, a Long Island native brought to his adopted hometown of Plattsburgh by his service in the U.S. Air Force. And he was a registered independent.

The story of Mr. Owens’s rise to power is the story of a swirling period of political winds that picked him up as a independent upstate attorney and deposited him in Washington, D.C. on the eve of the House passage of the health care reform legislation that, for better or for worse, would come to define his tenure both in the eyes of supporters and competitors.

In June 2009, President Barack Obama named Rep. John M. McHugh — a man who began his public service career as a confidential assistant to the Watertown City Manager — secretary of the Army.

Mr. McHugh was sworn into the House of Representatives in 1993 and served as a north country representative for 16 years, rising through the ranks to become the top Republican on the House Armed Services committee.

His appointment left a power vacuum, which forces from both sides of the aisle moved quickly to fill.

Mr. Owens was picked to run for the seat over nine other candidates by the district’s 11 Democratic county chairpersons after the party’s presumed candidate, then-state senator Darrel J. Aubertine, of Cape Vincent, decided not to run.

As an outsider, Mr. Owens entered the race facing several obstacles but cleaved to a message of economic development and job creation that helped characterize him as a moderate candidate.

“Bill Owens, to his credit, was never a politician, but rather a citizen who wished to help the north country and the area from which he came. He was effective because of his honesty, sincerity and hard work, and while I know we will remain friends, I will miss him in Congress,” said U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

At the outset and throughout his time campaigning and in Congress, Mr. Owens remained pragmatic about his involvement with the party.

He said that he asked the Democrats for the nomination because his principle’s aligned most closely with the party’s platform and “that’s where the ideas are coming from and that’s where the energy is coming from.”

By August, Mr. McHugh’s nomination was not yet confirmed by the Senate, but there were already three candidates vying for the position: Mr. Owens, Assemblywoman and Republican nominee Diedre K. Scozzafava, and Conservative candidate Douglas L. Hoffman.

And that’s where things got interesting.

By the time the dust settled, Ms. Scozzafava had dropped out of the race and endorsed Mr. Owens, splitting the vote, Mr. Owens, the newly-minted Democrat, was sent to the Capital with 49 percent of the vote.

Mr. Owens was sworn in on Nov. 7, 2009 and, the very next day, voted for the Affordable Care Act, which passed the House of Representatives with a 220-215 vote.

Mr. Owens’s vote landed him squarely in the sights of future Republican challengers and they wasted no time attacking him for his stance on the bill.

But Mr. Owens successfully defended himself, albeit by a narrow margin, against Republican challenger Matthew A. Doheny on two occassions, firmly planting himself in Rep. McHugh’s old seat.

And he defended his vote on the Affordable Care Act to the last, though he expressed frustration with the implementation of the law.

“I’m a bit frustrated too. I’m not very happy with the rollout either,” Mr. Owens said in December. “But people are not focused on what we’re trying to accomplish, which is lower costs, better health care. Those are the things I need to be focused on long-term.”

Two of Mr. Owens’s potential Republican challengers, Elise M. Stefanik, Willsboro, and Joseph M. Gilbert, DeKalb Junction, have been virtually relentless in their criticism of his support of the Affordable Care Act.

But Mr. Owens said that he had no fear about defending his decision, or his approach to politics, one more time.

“I ran three really tight races and I won all three. I’m not afraid of another fight. It’s just time to step down,” he said.

Mr. Owens, who, before being elected, helped create the Plattsburgh Airbase Redevelopment Corp., said that he would continue to focus on bringing jobs and economic development to the north country.

As for a potential Democratic successor, Mr. Owens echoed the same strains of mystery that saw him rise from the relatively unknown to a position of national prominence.

“I was a surprise in 2009. There’s another pleasant surprise out there as well, I’m sure,” he said.

To watch video of Owens speaking in September about the fiscal year, visit, http://wdt.Me/owens-fiscalyear. To listen to audio of Owens explaining his decision Tuesday to not seek reelection, as recorded by NCPR, visit http://wdt.Me/8pchdt.

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