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NY21: Owens works senior vote in Massena

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Senior citizens vote at higher rates than the rest of the population. So they'll be key to the eventual winner of the North Country's 21st Congressional district. And issues important to seniors, like health care law and Medicare, will take front stage until November.

Democrat Bill Owens' campaign has been ratcheting up the debate with Republican Matt Doheny on Medicare. Owens himself reached out to senior citizens at the Seniorama expo yesterday in Massena.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

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Danny Clebes and his band churn out the golden hits, like “La Bamba”, in the St. Lawrence Centre Mall Arena. Senior citizens wander aisles of tables where you can get anything from free cholesterol screenings to scented candles to fitness programs for the elderly.

Almost every political candidate has a table here, manned by staffers. Republican Matt Doheny’s wife is working the room. Congressman Bill Owens came himself.

A woman with Literacy Volunteers offers Owens a book, then jokes that he doesn’t have time to read. “Not at this point”, Owens replies, “maybe after the election.”

Owens is a low-key campaigner. He’s gentlemanly in a sports coat, tie, and khaki slacks. He shakes hands and listens, then moves on. He rarely says something like, “hey, I’m running for Congress and you should vote for me.” But afterwards, when I ask him what concerns he heard from seniors, Owens is on message: “Principally, what people were saying to me was ‘don’t cut Medicare’.”

Ever since Paul Ryan jumped into the presidential race as Mitt Romney’s choice for vice-president, Democrats nationally, and Owens, regionally, have been trying to make Ryan’s proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher system a major issue. Owens says he’s been telling people here why it wouldn’t work. “I indicated to them I thought it was a cost-shifting measure, not a cost reduction measure, meaning you’re pushing the cost to seniors. You’re not actually reducing the cost of what Medicare is spending. And my view is we should be focused on reducing what Medicare is spending and also trying to get better health care outcomes for seniors.”

Owens has voted to reduce the amount of future growth in Medicare by more than $700 billion. That was a part of President Obama’s health care law. Ryan also used that $700 billion in savings in his budget plan.

Owens’ challenger, Republican Matt Doheny, has said he doesn’t support Obama’s health care plan or Ryan’s Medicare voucher plan. But he’s yet to say what he would do with Medicare, despite repeated media requests for policy details. Doheny spokesman Jude Seymour says those details will come later in the campaign. In a written statement, he said Doheny “believes in keeping our promise to current beneficiaries and soon-to-be recipients while working toward a strong, secure future” for the program.

The Owens campaign has seized on the generalities, even making a website with a “Doheny Medicare countdown clock” showing how much time has passed since the Republican launched his campaign without Medicare specifics. And Democrats are making robocalls in the district to try to tie Doheny to Ryan’s Medicare voucher plan.

All this political maneuvering from both sides doesn’t seem to be on the minds of people at Seniorama, at least not in a good way. Steve Parkinson from Chase Mills says “they’re all more concerned about whether or not they’ll get elected instead of what the people need.”

People here are divided over the new health care law, mostly along party lines, like the candidates themselves. Democrat Carol Gladding of Norwood says it’s a step in the right direction: “I think it’s a good idea, but without the backing of the whole Congress it’s not going to be effective, so I’m hoping they can come up with some kind of compromise.”

Nancy Miller of Brasher Falls is a Republican: “I don’t think it should be shoved down our throats, which it was. We voted for change four years ago, but we don’t like the change we got.”

Congress’ approval rating is mired in all-time lows. Democrat Bill Owens will have to fight that perception to keep his seat, especially in a district where there are more registered Republicans. Owens says he’s upset with Congress, too: “Y’know, I think the question is what are you working towards? And I’m interested in trying to bring people together for compromise and to get things done that are in the interest of the district.”

It’s that message that Owens will need to resonate with voters, especially senior citizens, for him to keep his seat in November.

Follow David Sommerstein on Twitter @davidncpr.



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