Rep. Owens to step aside

U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, who has served in Congress since 2009, says he plans to undertake “new endeavors” after leaving office at the end of the year.

Owens announced Tuesday he won’t seek re-election for the 21st congressional district in November.

“It is my goal that the next phase of my life will continue to focus on helping to improve the lives of all New Yorkers, primarily through job creation and economic development,” Owens said in a news release.

However, he said he has no specific plans for what he will do in the private sector.

Owens’ 21st congressional district includes Fulton and Hamilton counties, and one of his offices is in Gloversville and is staffed once a week. He was re-elected in November 2012 to a two-year term.

“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,” Owens said in the news release.

Owens’ decision, for now, leaves Democrats without a candidate in the 21st district race. There are at least three Republicans running for their party’s nomination in the district – Joseph Gilbert, Michael Ring and Elise Stefanik.

Some local officials praised Owens for his service.

Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Newport, said Owens has done an adequate job.

Butler said he is interested to see who will win Owens’ seat in November.

“Well, I think if you look at that district, Republicans have a great opportunity to take that seat,” Butler said.

Gloversville Mayor Dayton King, a Republican, said while he disagreed with Owens’ vote for the Affordable Care Act, known to many as Obamacare, he said Owens is very connected with his constituents.

King praised Owens for taking King up on his offer for Owens to have a local office in Gloversville City Hall.

King said Owens has been a great proponent of small businesses.

King said one of the announced Republican candidates, Stefanik, appears to be the most qualified.

“At least in my opinion, I think Elise would do a good job,” King said.

Johnstown Mayor Michael Julius, a Democrat, said Owens is a personal friend of his. He said it will be sad to see Owens leave office.

Julius said of the coming election for the seat, “The field is probably going to be wide open.”

Owens said the remainder of his term “will be spent in much the same way as the previous four years: assisting constituents with their individual concerns, continuing to focus on passing a Farm Bill, helping to create jobs in our communities, working for our troops and veterans, keeping the northern border secure and fluid and being a voice in Congress for bipartisanship, as well as fact-based decision making,” he said in the news release.

Owens, 64, serves on the Committee on Appropriations, the Subcommittee on Defense and the Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

Owens and his wife, Jane, live in Plattsburgh. They have three grown children and four grandchildren.

During a conference call with members of the press Tuesday, Owens said the idea of not seeking re-election first crossed his mind about six weeks ago. After conversations with his family, Owens decided he would not run for re-election.

Owens said his decision did not come about because of any health problems, frustration with partisan gridlock or concern about facing another tight race for Congress. The congressman noted he is ready to “move on” and spend more time with his family.

During the conference call, Owens said he has no reason to believe the Democrats will lose control of the 21st district.

“I was a pleasant surprise in 2009,” he said, adding that the party could find another pleasant surprise for itself this year.

The House Republicans’ campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, sees the 21st district as a pickup opportunity.

“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,” NRCC spokesman Ian Prior said. “It’s looking more and more likely that the 21st district will elect a strong Republican leader in 2014 who will go to Washington and fight for better jobs, a more limited and efficient government and against Obamacare’s job-killing medical device tax.”

Democrats, however, aren’t giving up on the race.

President Barack Obama won the district in 2008 and 2012 and two statewide candidates, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, won the 21st district with 60 percent of the vote in 2010.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Steve Israel is confident the party will find a competitive candidate to replace Owens on the ballot.

“While Republicans are already fighting a bitter and divisive primary, I have no doubt that another commonsense Democrat will fill his shoes in this competitive district that Democrats have held for the past three elections,” Israel said.

The 21st district spans more than 16,000 square miles, making it one of the largest districts east of the Mississippi River. It comprises all or part of the following 12 counties: Fulton, Hamilton, Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Herkimer (partial), Jefferson, Lewis, Saratoga (partial), St. Lawrence, Warren and Washington.

Republicans hold a large enrollment advantage in the district. There are 183,509 registered GOP voters and 127,568 registered Democrats. There are also 89,704 unaffiliated voters and 26,820 Independence Party voters in the district, according to the state Board of Elections.

Despite the large GOP advantage in the North Country, Owens was able to win three elections. He first won a special election in 2009 to win the seat vacated by former Rep. John McHugh, a Republican who stepped down to become Secretary of the Army in President Barack Obama’s administration. Owens won election to a full two-year term in 2010 and was re-elected in 2012 to the renumbered 21st district.

Owens was born in Brooklyn. He is a graduate of Manhattan College and Fordham University School of Law. He served in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at the Plattsburgh Air Force Base. After completing his service, Owens stayed in the North Country, where he built a law practice and raised a family.

Owen’s tenure has not been without controversy.

In 2012, Owens reimbursed a Taiwan university for a $22,000 trip he took to the island with his wife.

The House Ethics Committee reviewed the four-day 2011 trip to the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan after allegations of ethics violations became public. Park Strategies, a lobbying group, was involved in the planning of the trip.

In November, the Ethics Committee closed the matter and ended its review because it was unable to obtain information necessary to conduct a complete review. Neither the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office nor the Chinese Cultural University would cooperate with the Ethics Committee, according to the November report.

However, the report noted, “Representative Owens should have known that the trip was not a proper privately sponsored trip because of the lobbying firm’s continued involvement, which the committee was unaware of. For this reason, the payments by CCU for Representative Owens’ travel expenses were improper.”

Owens is the second New York Democrat to announce their retirement this year. U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a Long Island Democrat, announced last week that she won’t seek another term in Congress.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.