Rep. Bill Owens (D)
New York 23rd District
Some early-19th-century visionaries believed that the North Country of upstate New York—a battleground in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812—was the land of the future. Financier Gouverneur Morris, French slave trader James Leray, and Dutch silver speculator David Parish bought up thousands of acres between the Adirondacks and the St. Lawrence River and tried to unload them on farmers unaware of the shortness of the growing season and the unnavigability of the river. These developers left behind grand mansions, but their hopes for huge profits were frustrated when the Erie Canal turned the stream of settlement westward, and Canadians built their new capital of Ottawa far north of the river. (Queen Victoria picked the site, and put it as far from the U.S. border as possible.) But northern New York was not without its business successes: It was in Watertown in 1878 that 26-year-old Frank Woolworth put a sign over a table of odds and ends that read “Any Article 5 Cents,” starting America’s first retail chain and inventing the concept of discount stores.
2008 Presidential Vote
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More recently, the North Country has looked to government for help. The St. Lawrence Seaway proved too small for most oceangoing freighters and remains frozen three months of the year. The locks are slow, and icebreakers would wreck the shoreline. The state government has built prisons in Ogdensburg and Cape Vincent and Malone. North Country and Vermont members of Congress tried to get Lake Champlain declared one of the Great Lakes, to qualify for funding for various programs. The gambit failed as Michigan members howled in protest. A General Motors power-train factory in Massena closed in May 2009, wiping out 500 jobs. The biggest initiative has been the enlargement of Fort Drum, near Watertown and adjacent to Lake Bonaparte, where despite the Army’s preference for warm-weather training sites, a 10,000-person light infantry division, the 10th Mountain Division, has been stationed since 1985. (The 10th Mountain has performed valiantly in difficult environs in Afghanistan and Iraq.) Private developers have built big malls in Watertown and Massena, attracting Canadians, as even New York has lower taxes than Ontario. While the dollar was cheap, Canadian tourism and shopping here were strong, notably at the Adirondack State Park.
The 23rd Congressional District of New York covers most of the North Country, starting at Lake Champlain, running westward along the St. Lawrence Seaway and over the Adirondacks Forest Preserve to Lake Ontario. It includes Madison County to the south. The district has only a few population centers, including Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain and Watertown and Oswego on Lake Ontario. Oswego, which occasionally docks oceangoing bulk vessels, bills itself as the first U.S. port of call on the Great Lakes from the Seaway. Geographically it is the largest district in New York state, and one of the largest in the East. Politically, it is ancestrally Republican but more inclined toward moderates than conservatives and increasingly divided in its loyalties to the two parties. It gave Republican George W. Bush a small plurality in 2000 and a small majority in 2004. And it gave Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama 52% of the vote over Republican John McCain’s 47% in 2008.
Rep. Bill Owens (D)
Elected: Nov. 2009, 1st term.
Born: Jan. 20, 1949, Brooklyn .
Education: Manhattan Col., B.S. 1971; Fordham U., J.D. 1974.
Family: Married (Jane); 3 children.
Military career: Air Force, 1975-79; Air Force Reserves, 1979-82.
Professional Career: Practicing attorney, 1974-present.
The new congressman from the 23rd District of New York is Democrat Bill Owens, a political newcomer who eked out a victory while preoccupied Republicans fought a bloody ideological battle among themselves. Owens was able to capture the seat for the Democrats in the November 3, 2009 election after a moderate Republican, who seemed to fit the district’s middle-of-the-road political profile, was forced out of contention by prominent GOP conservatives Sarah Palin, Dick Armey, Tom Pawlenty and others. In the final weeks of the campaign, the heavyweights on the right stepped into the local race to push the candidacy of conservative Lake Placid businessman Doug Hoffman, who promptly lost the contest to Owens. He succeeds moderate Republican John McHugh, who represented the district for 15 years before becoming President Barack Obama’s Army secretary earlier this year. Owens’ election increased the Democratic House majority to 258 seats to the Republicans’ 177 as Democrats prepared to try to pass a sweeping overhaul of national health care policy.
|John McHugh (R-Ind-C)||143,029||(65%)||($645,795)|
|Michael Oot (D-WF)||75,871||(35%)||($107,714)|
|John McHugh (R-Ind-C)||Unopposed|
Owens was born in Brooklyn, the only child of a civil engineer and a homemaker. The family moved to Long Island when he was 5 years old, and later settled in the suburb of Mineola. Owens graduated from Manhattan College, where he joined the Air Force ROTC, and got a deferment to attend law school at Fordham University. When he got his law degree, he was commissioned in the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG). He was stationed for two years at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan and then was transferred to New York’s Plattsburgh Air Force Base. Both he and his wife, Jane, whom he had met in college, grew to love the area and decided to remain there to raise their family after Owens’ military commitment was over.
When the Plattsburgh base was shuttered in 1995, Owens helped found the Plattsburgh Airbase Redevelopment Corp., a group that tried to develop it into a commercial center by recruiting industry to the area. He helped the group achieve tax exempt status and briefly served as its general counsel. Owens also went into local private practice, becoming a managing partner of the Plattsburgh firm of Stafford, Owens, Curtin & Trombley, where he focused on business and tax law.
In early June 2009, McHugh, who had represented the district since 1993, accepted Obama’s offer to become secretary of the Army. There are no primaries for special elections in New York, so candidates for the special election to replace McHugh were chosen by the party chairmen in the 11 counties that make up the 23rd District. Republicans nominated six-term Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, a moderate similar in her politics to McHugh. She favored abortion rights, supported same-sex marriage and had strong ties to organized labor. Unhappy with the choice, the New York Conservative Party put up its own candidate, Hoffman. Democrats were unable to recruit their top choice for the race, state Sen. Darrel Aubertine, who decided against running. They settled on first-time candidate Owens, who had neither comparable name recognition to Aubertine nor experience running in a contested election. Owens had previously been an independent, but said that over time, his views came to be more in line with the Democratic Party, particularly on economic issues. To win over local leaders, Owens stressed his work in the community, particularly on job creation. In lining up behind Owens, Democratic leaders hoped that his independence and military service would remind voters of the moderate McHugh. Republicans have a registration advantage of about 46,500 voters in the district, but Obama carried it by five percentage points, making it centrist territory.
As a possible bellwether for the 2010 midterm elections, the race got the attention of national figures and organizations. Hoffman was helped by the deep pockets of the national anti-tax group Club for Growth, which helped him highlight Scozzafava’s liberal social positions and her support for Democrats’ economic proposals, including the January 2009 economic stimulus bill. Early polls showed Scozzafava leading, but as the race wore on she struggled with fundraising. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Hoffman won endorsements from 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Palin, former U.S. House Majority Leader Armey and Minnesota Gov. Pawlenty. Hoffman’s polls numbers rose, and on Oct. 31, Scozzafava announced that she was withdrawing from the race. The National Republican Congressional Committee switched its endorsement to Hoffman, but Scozzafava backed former Democratic rival Owens. “It’s not in the cards for me to be your representative, but I strongly believe Bill (Owens) is the only candidate who can build upon John McHugh’s lasting legacy in the U.S. Congress,” she said in a statement.
On November 3, even as Republicans prevailed in gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, Owens gave Democrats a victory in New York, beating Hoffman 49% to 46%, with Scozzafava garnering 5%. His win followed the upstate New York victory in March 2009 of Democrat Scott Murphy in the adjacent 20th District. Murphy defeated Republican James Tedisco, the New York Assembly minority leader, by a margin of just 726 votes. Owens’ victory leaves Peter King and Chris Lee as the only two Republicans in New York’s congressional delegation.
Owens was sworn in on November 6, 2009. The next day, a Saturday, he voted for the House Democrats’ health care overhaul. During the campaign, he had stressed expanding coverage to the uninsured and requiring plans to cover pre-existing conditions. He said of the bill: “This legislation will reform the insurance industry and provide increased access to affordable health care without taxing health care benefits, cutting Medicare benefits or raising taxes on the middle class, and that is exactly the direction we need to go.”
by Jessica Taylor