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Rep. Bill Owens addresses crowd in Greenwich, in Washington County. Photo: Brian Mann
Rep. Bill Owens addresses crowd in Greenwich, in Washington County. Photo: Brian Mann

NY21: Does Bill Owens have Main Street biz cred?

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In these final days of the 2012 election, we're looking at the business backgrounds of the two top candidates for the North Country's House seat.

Democrat Bill Owens and Republican Matt Doheny are locked in a dead heat in these final days.

The question of business credibility has been a major issue out on the campaign trail, with both politicians claiming that they have the experience and know-how to help rebuild the region's long-suffering economy.

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This story is part two of NCPR's look at the business credentials of the two major party candidates in the 21st district House race. Click here to hear our profile of Matt Doheny, the Republican from Watertown.

In his ads attacking Bill Owens, Republican Matt Doheny, wants you to hear that the Democrat has embraced policies that hurt small businesses. "Owens votes to increase taxes on small manufacturers, likely driving jobs overseas," one ad argues.

The Republican take is that Owens just doesn’t know business, doesn’t know how capitalism works. It’s a message that’s been reinforced by Doheny’s conservative allies, including the US Chamber of Commerce.

"Congressman Bill Owens is a typical Washington politician," the TV spot claims. "Why did Congressman Owens help ram through government mandated healthcare?" This is an attack that Owens has been fighting since 2009, when he first ran for Congress. 

In the Democrat's latest ad, pushing back against conservative criticism, Owens claims that he helped create 2,000 new jobs in Plattsburgh.

But this idea that Owens isn’t really a businessman has clearly gained some traction. The Glens Falls Post Star endorsed Matt Doheny, the Republican, on the basis of that argument. The paper’s editorial board wrote that Dohenhy’s business experience was "better suited to the challenging economic environment that now faces the country and the district."

Owens also continues to face questions about his willingness to raise taxes on capital gains and on the wealthy. The Democrat has supported measures that some business leaders oppose, including higher taxes for the wealthy and the medical reform bill known as Obamacare.

Those stances have made him the target of nearly $1 million in outside attack ads funded by groups that don’t reveal their donors.

But Owens – a trained attorney – does have a long record in the North Country as a businessman, first helping to run a law firm in Plattsburgh for decades.

"I understand what it's like to make payroll," Owens says, referring to his time as managing partner of a law firm in Plattsburgh. "I ran that business. I understand what it is to run a small business."

During those years, before being elected to congress, Owens sat on the boards of banks, and he worked closely with the regional chamber of commerce.

He says his law practice worked closely doing the nuts and bolts work of helping small businesses get started: "Doing the work of helping somebody first form the corporation, then get a bank loan, then deal with their employees, that's what small business is about," he said. "That's what I did."

But Owens’ big claim to economic development credibility is the story he tells about helping to organize an effort to recruit Canadian businesses to the Plattsburgh area after the old air force base shut down, attracting thousands of new jobs.

Mark Barie is an ardent opponent of Owens, a founder of the North Country’s conservative UNYTEA tea party movement that is pushing for Doheny to be elected. But in a 2009 interview, Barie acknowledged that Owens did play a key role in boosting Plattsburgh’s economy.

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

So this is one of those years when the attack ads on both sides appear to be fogging the facts: Both major candidates, Bill Owens and Matt Doheny, have strong but very different credentials as businessmen and economic development leaders. 

Owens made a successful career working with businesses here in the North Country and has a long track record of partnering the region’s community of business leaders. 

Matt Doheny made his fortune on Wall Street and has the kind of big-world experience and connections that could be a major asset attracting new firms to the region. 

Which resume would be better for the North Country?  Voters will make that decision Tuesday.

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