by Liz Benjamin
January 14, 2014
Democratic Rep. Bill Owens announced he will not seek another term representing the sprawling North Country district in upstate New York.
“After careful thought and consideration, I have decided not to seek re-election for the 21st Congressional District this November,” Owens said in a statement. “I have enjoyed the opportunity to travel the district, meeting and serving the families and business owners of this vast community. It has truly been a privilege to serve, and I plan on continuing to work for a brighter future for the region.”
It is something of a surprise announcement for the lawmaker, who had beaten back multiple challenges from both Conservative and Republican challengers – most recently Matt Doheny (making his second attempt) – to hold the seat for two terms.
Owens raised controversy when he accepted a trip from a Taiwan university that had been arranged through a lobbying firm. He would later personally pay back the $22,132 cost for the trip. Last fall, the House Ethics Committee closed an investigatopm into the matter.
Owens’ victory in a special election in 2009 to replace GOP Rep. John McHugh following McHugh’s elevation by President Obama to Secretary of the Army made him the first Democrat to represent the area in more than a century. That special attracted national attention as the fight for the GOP line was seen as an ideological battle between moderates and Tea Party conservatives for the soul of the party.
Owens managed to win with less than 50 percent of the vote because the moderate Republican candidate, former Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (now a member of the Cuomo administration), was forced out of the race by the Conservative, Doug Hoffman, too late to remove her name from the ballot, forcing the right to split its vote and allowing the Democrats a narrow path to victory.
Hoffman’s success in sidelining his more pragmatic opponent led to the coining of a new political phrase: To be Scozzafaved.
While Owens had a narrow victory for re-election in 2010, he handily defeated Doheny, an upstate businessman, in a head-to-head race in. President Obama also carried the district both in 2008 and 2012 by between five and six percentage points. The district lines were redrawn before the 2012 race to make it slightly more Republican, skewing it dramatically to the south to include Saratoga County, which used to belong to Rep. Chris Gibson. (The district was NY-23, and is now NY-21).
The retirement now makes what could have been an easy hold for Democrats in the House a potential swing district.
Declared Republican candidates in the race include former Bush administration official Elise Stefanik, a former Bush administration aide; Joseph Gilbert, a U.S. Army major and tea party leader from St. Lawrence County; and Michael Ring, a broadcast engineer and political activist from Jefferson County.