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Democratic candidate Bill Owens
Democratic candidate Bill Owens

Bill Owens: An independent cutting a low profile

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It's two weeks until Election Day in the race to replace John McHugh in the 23rd Congressional district. So far, the campaign has been characterized by attack ads and big infusions of cash from national sources, and careful management by Washington-based insiders. There have been very few public appearances where voters can ask the three candidiates about the issues. Today, we have the first of three profiles to try to flesh out who these candidates are and what they stand for. Bill Owens is a lawyer in Plattsburgh. He represents CVPH Medical Center and Mountain Lake PBS, among other clients. He's married, has three children and four grandchildren. He's a lifelong independent who says President Barack Obama's message of change inspired him to run as a Democrat. David Sommerstein has this profile.

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It's a rainy night in Canton.  Democrats are opening their campaign office with a coming out party for Bill Owens.

[Owens sound]

Owens works the room in a sportscoat and a tie-less blue shirt.  He's the classic image of a 2009 politician - formally casual...arms motionless at his sides when he's not shaking hands.

Right now, Bill Owens for the 23rd Congressional district!!

Owens is a political neophyte.  He's often called an independent thinker, best known in Clinton County for his legal work and for hosting a business roundtable on Plattsburgh's public TV station. 

But what Owens himself highlights from his biography is a claim that he helped bring 2,000 jobs to northeastern New York.  And he makes job creation the cornerstone of his stump speech.

My campaign is really one that is very much focused on how are we going to create jobs for our children and our grandchildren, so that they can stay in our communities and share with us our lives.

Owens touches on green technology, reaching out to Canadian firms, and the importance of the North Country's universities.  As a veteran, he says supports Fort Drum.  It's a brief speech, ending with a reminder that Democrats have a chance to make history.

If we're going to take something that has not been a blue seat since 1852...I wanna repeat that...since 1852...we have the opportunity, a unique opportunity to get this done this year and with your support we're going to get it done.  Thank you very much...[cheers]

There are two kinds of people here.  The party faithful, like Linda Bage, an Alcoa worker from Fort Jackson.  She says Owens' support for the President is good enough for her.

I wish I knew more about Mr. Owens, but I guess at this point, I'm going to say I'm a faithful party Democrat.  I'm anxious to put another Democrat in Congress to help President Obama with his agenda.

Then there are skeptical Democrats, like St. Lawrence University professor Mark MacWilliams.  He points to Owens' opposition to same sex marriage, his middle ground on health care.  MacWilliams thinks he's too conservative.

I'm very more hard left-wing, so I'm finding it a little hard to swallow.  I'll swallow if I can hear some more positive things.

In fact, most people were surprised Owens leaned Democratic at all.  Joe Lo Tempio covers politics for the Plattsburgh Press-Republican.

He was always affiliated with Ronald Stafford's law firm.  And Stafford, of course, was the icon of the Republican party up here.  And everyone always assumed that Bill was a Republican.  So when he entered as a Democrat, that opened up a few eyes.

The Democrats' choice mirrors the nationwide strategy of running fiscal and social conservatives in traditional Republican districts.  It worked in the North Country's other Congressional district, where moderate Scott Murphy of Glens Falls scored a big upset.

Like that district, Republicans hold a big voter enrollment advantage in the 23rd.  But President Obama is popular, getting 52% of the vote in the North Country last November.  Former state party chair June O'Neill says a candidate riding Obama's coattails who can appeal to moderate Republicans is a winning formula.

People are excited and energized.  They saw what happened in New York 20, where there were 70,000 more Republicans than Democrats and Scott Murphy won.  So I think as people get to know Bill Owens and hear his message, they're gonna know he's exactly the person we need.

The biggest of Democratic muscle is all in for Owens.  Bill Clinton wrote a fundraising letter for him, calling the race "a referendum on Obama's agenda".  Vice-president Joe Biden held an Owens fundraiser in Syracuse.  And last night President Obama himself stumped for Owens at a 4800 dollar a plate dinner in New York City...

[Obama tape?]

Yet Bill Owens himself has been laying low in public.  With Conservative Doug Hoffman and Republican Dede Scozzafava battling for the soul of the GOP, Owens has largely stuck to the party functions and private meetings with community leaders.  And he's spent hundred of thousands of dollars on TV and radio ads sculpting the image of a folksy defender of the North Country economy.

[dairy ad]

Opponents are seizing on Owens' low-profile campaigning.  They derisively call him "InvisiBill".  They challenge his job creation claims.

[RNCC ad]

Owens points to people like Mark Barrie in defense.  Barrie's a Plattsburgh developer.  He describes his political views as being closest to the Conservative in this race.  Despite that, Barrie backs Owens' claims about luring business to Clinton County.

No question that Bill was in the trenches, making calls on Canadian companies in Canada, hosting them in my office, usually, in what we called 'red carpet days', and that's one of the reasons we have 275 Canadian companies in Clinton County.  Bill was part of a team.

While Owens leans heavily on his economic position, he supports much of the Democratic platform.  He's for abortion rights.  He would have voted for the stimulus package.  He wants to see the Bush tax cuts expire.  He backs Obama's cautious approach to sending more troops to Afghanistan.

But Owens is a politician building an identity on the fly.  Several times at the rally in Canton, he said he needed to learn more about issues.  He refused to take a stand on the public option in health care reform.  He said he needed to be "more educated" on issues facing dairy farmers, even when his dairy ad was released four days later.

For voters who want a Congressman who can hit Washington running, Owens says his background as a lawyer will help him do that.

I think I'm a very hard-working, thoughtful person who tries every day to do the best job that I can.  I have a career of 32 years of taking issues, complicated issues, analyzing them, studying them and taking action to resolve them.

For many of the 23rd district's voters, Bill Owens is still an unknown quantity.  Last week's Siena poll found half of respondents didn't know him or had no opinion.  That includes 41% of Democrats and a whopping 57% of Independents.

Advertising will play a big role in making those introductions.  The health care union, SEIU, plunked down 100,000 dollars for radio ads this week.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein in Canton.

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