By JOE LoTEMPLIO
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Congressman Bill Owens surprised many in the North Country political world Tuesday when he announced he will not seek re-election this year.
“This is a decision we (he and his family) came to as a group, and it is one I am very comfortable with, and it is a road I need to take in my life right now,” Owens told reporters in a telephone news conference Tuesday afternoon.
Owens, 64, said he has no health issues that prompted the move; it was something he had been thinking about for the past six weeks.
He said he had several conversations with his family and after the holidays made his decision.
“I decided to do it now before the campaign season gets going,” he said.
‘TIME TO MOVE ON’
Owens has been the target of heavy criticism from Republicans for supporting the Affordable Health Care Act since he took office in late 2009.
He has also been frustrated with Congress’s inability to approve a long-term Farm Bill.
But the rigors of Washington politics weren’t critical components of his decision not to run, he said.
“Clearly, there has been some level of frustration with these kinds of issues, but that is not a driving force here.”
Owens also said the prospect of facing yet another grueling campaign was not a factor in his decision.
“I am not afraid of another fight, but I’ve decided it is time to move on.”
Owens said he spoke with Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Steve Israel, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, about his retirement, and he was planning to make the announcement on Wednesday.
But the news was leaked Tuesday to the “avaricious” media, he said, which prompted him to make his decision public a day earlier.
‘NOT THE BEST DAY’
His absence in the race this year is likely to set off an intense battle in both parties as leaders search for a candidate they hope will become the next member of Congress.
“It’s not the best day, that’s for sure,” Clinton County Democratic Party Chairman Martin Mannix said, reflecting on Owens’s decision.
“I guess people got to do what they have to do. Now we go about finding the next Bill Owens.”
Mannix was instrumental in getting Owens to run in the 2009 special election after longtime Congressman John McHugh, a Republican from Jefferson County, left the seat to become the secretary of the Army.
Owens who spent his professional career at the Plattsburgh law firm of former State Sen. Ronald B. Stafford, a powerful Republican, surprised many by running as a Democrat.
He won the hotly contested special election for the final year on McHugh’s term, narrowly defeating Conservative Party candidate Douglas Hoffman of Saranac Lake.
Republican Dierdre “Dede” Scozzafava, a St. Lawrence County assemblywoman, dropped out of the race three days before the election as her poll numbers dragged.
She gave her support to Owens and later took a job in the administration of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
‘PAVED THE WAY’
Owens won two-year terms in 2010 and 2012 in close races against Republican Matt Doheny of Watertown.
Prior to 2009, no Democrat had held the 21st District seat since the Civil War era. The district covers 12 counties, from Lake Ontario in the west to Lake Champlain in the east.
It is the fifth-largest district geographically east of the Mississippi River.
Mannix said Owens’s tenure has paved the way for future Democrats.
“He made it easier for Democrats and showed that it can be done.”
Mannix said he spoke with Owens before he made his announcement but could not persuade him to stay in the race.
“He made his decision, and it was very clear, and it was not easily arrived at or quickly,” he said.
“But I am sure we will have some good candidates out there just like Bill.”
Ronald Jackson, who is Essex County Republican Party chairman and vice chairman of the North Country region for the State Republican Party, said they are about halfway through the process of selecting a preferred candidate.
“I think we can get this seat back,” Jackson said.
“We have an advantage in (voter) registration, and each of the last three races were very close and could have gone either way.”
Three Republicans have been vying for the party endorsement: Elise Stefanik of Willsboro, Joe Gilbert of St. Lawrence County and Michael Ring of Jefferson County.
Stefanik issued a statement Tuesday saying Republicans are now in a great position to win back the seat and bring new ideas and leadership to the district.
“I will continue traveling throughout the district and working to earn the endorsement of the remaining county GOP committees and seeking the support of Republicans, Conservatives and independents of the North Country,” she said.
Jackson said a final decision will be made at a meeting of all 12 party chairs in Elizabethtown on Feb. 5.
‘OBAMACARE SUPPORT HURT’
Clinton County Republican Party Chairman Donald Lee said Owens would have been in for a rough ride if he had opted to run again.
“There are a lot of people who are upset about what happened with the Affordable Care Act,” he said.
“He (Owens) supported it and continues to say it’s a good thing, and a lot of people are disenfranchised by that.”
Lee’s sentiment was supported by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“Bill Owens is just the latest Democrat who would rather hang ‘em up than have to spend the next year defending Obamacare and other Democratic economic policies that haven’t evolved since Jimmy Carter was president,” Ian Prior, northeast regional press secretary for the NRCC, said in a statement.
Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas, a Democrat, said Owens is always there for his county.
“I thanked him for all he has done for the Town of Jay and Essex County as we continue to recover from Hurricane Irene,” Douglas said in a statement.
“Bill has always been accessible and very helpful to our North Country needs.”
Franklin County Republican Party Chairman Ray Scollin said his party often does not agree with Owens but appreciates his service.
“It is a difficult job, requiring an understanding of the people and their needs within the district,” he said in a statement.
“While we believe that Mr. Owens was frequently out of step with the people of New York’s 21st District, he served honorably, and we thank him.”
Owens said he has enjoyed his time in Washington.
“I tried to bring some level of bipartisanship to Congress, and I felt I accomplished that,” he said. “I tried to make decisions on a factual basis.”
There is more than $400,000 remaining in his campaign fund.
“I need to investigate some more about what I am permitted to do with that,” he said.
Owens said he has no definite plans for what he will do when his term concludes at the end of the year but wants to continue to assist in attracting jobs to the North Country and aiding the economy.
North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas said the congressman has been a pleasure to work with.
“Bill Owens has been a great champion for the North Country in all matters related to our northern border and the U.S.-Canada relationship and a great partner in many of our economic-development endeavors, including support for our transportation equipment companies,” he said in an email.
“It will be important that his successor also be strong in these ways.”
Email Joe LoTemplio firstname.lastname@example.org.