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Rep. Owens will not seek re-election in 2014

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After 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 that 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 he first thought of stepping aside six weeks ago. At the time, it was only an idea in the back of his mind — an idea that 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 when 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 this morning, but the news was leaked by an “avaricious” local media, Mr. Owens said.

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

“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, the first Democrat elected to represent the north country in Congress since the late 1800s, 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 overhaul 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 in to 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 Sen. 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 he asked the Democrats for the nomination because his principles 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 2009, Mr. McHugh’s nomination was not yet confirmed by the Senate, but there were already three candidates vying for his congressional seat: Mr. Owens, Assemblywoman and Republican nominee Dierdre 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; Vice President Joseph R. Biden visited the north side of Watertown to stump for his party mate and Mr. Owens, the newly minted Democrat, was sent to the Capitol 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 in 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 occasions, firmly planting himself in Mr. McHugh’s old seat.

And he defended his vote on the Affordable Care Act to the very end, 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 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 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 a relative 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 Mr. Owens speaking in September about the fiscal year, visit, http://wdt.Me/owens-fiscalyear. To listen to audio of Mr. Owens explaining his decision Tuesday to not seek reelection, as recorded by NCPR, visit http://wdt.Me/8pchdt.

a Bill Owens timeline
• July 2009: Owens says he will consider a run for Congress after early favorite Darrel Aubertine backs out n August 2009: Owens tops nine other candidates to be chosen as Democratic candidate by 11 county chairmen; he will face Republican Dierdre K. Scozzafava and Conservative Douglas L. Hoffman n November 2009: Citing plunging poll numbers, Scozaafava pulls out of the race, then the day before the election endorses Owens over Hoffman; Owens wins election with 49.4 percent of the vote over Hoffman with 45 percent n February 2010: Hoffman announces he will again seek the 21st District seat n April 2010: Matthew A. Doheny, Watertown, announces his candidacy for the Republican nomination n September 2010: Doheny wins Republican primary but Hoffman vows to continue on the Conservative Party line n October 2010: Hoffman reverses field, bows out of race but remains on Conservative ballot n November 2010: Owens defeats Doheny and Hoffman, 48 percent to 46 percent to 6 percent n April 2012: Redistricting creates new 21st District that stretches from Saratoga Springs to Canada; Madison, Oswego counties out of district n August 2012: In rematch between Owens and Doheny, early poll has Owens leading by 13 percentage points n October 2012: In final pre-election poll, race is dead even: Owens 44 percent, Doheny 43 percent n November 2012: Owens defeats Doheny, 50 percent to 48 percent to be re-elected
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