When Bill Owens announced recently that he would not be running for Congress again, it came as a surprise to many in the North Country. But on closer inspection, his decision is easier to understand.
Owens spent his career in Plattsburgh, working at longtime State Sen. Ronald B. Stafford’s law firm. Stafford was one of the most powerful Republicans in New York. So Owens’s decision to seek the congressional seat in 2009 as a Democrat was unexpected.
To win, Owens would need the perfect circumstances, since a Democrat had not held the seat since the Civil War era. That is just what he got.
Since it was a special election in a year with few high-profile congressional races, the contest drew national attention. The Democratic Party poured in funds and resources for Owens, who was a strong candidate due to his intelligence and experience as a lawyer involved in many local fields — health care and economic development among them.
The situation got better for Owens when Republicans chose Assemblywoman Dierdre “Dede” Scozzafava as their candidate despite party dissension with the decision.
Then, Douglas Hoffman of Saranac Lake decided to run as a Conservative Party candidate, all but assuring a close race.
Scozzafava withdrew three days before the election and supported Owens, which was the final push he needed to nab the historic win.
While the victory was satisfying for Owens and the Democrats, there was little time to dwell on success. He faced stiff challenges in 2010 and again in 2012 from Republican Matt Doheny but was able to survive.
This year, however, it looked as if the magic might be running out.
With the party backing in 2009 came the assumption that Owens would support the Affordable Health Care Act, which he did, making clear that he had read the bill in its entirety.
His vote was highly criticized by Obamacare opponents over the past four years. With the enactment of major portions of the law in late 2013, the arrows being fired at Owens intensified.
Owens, 64, has said he feels he has accomplished a good deal and wants to spend more time with his family. But it seems apparent that overcoming the Obamacare stigma and the fact that the 12-county district still has overwhelmingly Republican registration must also have been factors in his decision. A nationwide approval rating of Congress only in the single digits couldn’t have been encouraging, either.
Owens can be proud of his service in Congress. He has proven to be dedicated to the North Country, committed to finding bi-partisan solutions and thoughtful in his decisions.
And it was certainly useful to have a representative from this side of the massive district for the first time in about a century.
The 2014 race to find his successor will, no doubt, be contentious. We hope the chosen candidates will respond to voter demands for a productive Congress that will work together for the good of the 26th District — and the nation.