Bill Owens still has more than 11 months to go as the North Country's man in the U.S. House of Representatives, but with his announcement last week that he won't seek re-election, it's a good time to reflect on what kind of public servant he's been so far.
We think he's represented our region pretty well.
He will hold a certain status in history as the first Democrat to represent this large House district since the Civil War. That party affiliation, and certain votes that have gone with it, mean a large number of North Country people will automatically take issue with him. That would be the case whether he was a Democrat or a Republican. What's now known as the 21st District was once a GOP stronghold, but now it's more evenly split. It still has more registered Republicans than Democrats, but its majority voted for Barack Obama for president in both 2008 and 2012. In that same four-year span, Mr. Owens won three close elections.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, left, D-Plattsburgh, listens to Ron and Beth Edgley on Oct. 28, 2013, during a tour of the couple’s bison farm on Norman Ridge Road in Vermontville.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
The Enterprise, editorial-wise, is not a Republican paper or a Democratic paper. On some issues we agree with one party, on other issues we agree with the other, and in general we think the two sides' constant warfare is one of the nation's biggest problems. Nothing new there - George Washington, in his presidential farewell speech in September 1796, called party politics the national government's "worst enemy," a "formal and permanent despotism."
For us, then, these are the measures of a good representative:
1. the courage to be just and ethical, and to stand up for goodness and the common good
2. the ability, including intelligence and vision, to do good work to resolve national and regional issues
3. the zeal to work hard
4. the patience and persistence to keep working
5. the independence and diplomacy to overcome the partisanship that has divided this nation against itself since its earliest days.
We think Rep. Owens generally succeeds on these points. So did his predecessor, Republican John McHugh. Both were notable for their bipartisanship, for traveling all around the district and for paying close attention to their constituents.
Rep. Owens hasn't been perfect. For instance, he once let a lobbyist pay for a trip to Taiwan for him and his wife. He should have known better, but he did pay the money back after news of the trip broke. He also didn't repeat the mistake, as far as we know.
When Mr. Owens first ran for Congress in 2009, we thought he was a nice guy but a little soft on matters of policy. It seemed like he'd do whatever the House Democratic leadership told him to.
That suspicion was reinforced right after he was elected that fall. He had hedged on the Affordable Care Act throughout the campaign, but Washington Democrats rushed his swearing-in so he could cast a key vote in favor of it.
In the years that followed, however, he surprised us by becoming his own man in the job.
Sure, he voted with his party on some big legislation - every politician does - but he also worked in the Washington trenches to push for bipartisan compromise, including on the Farm Bill, on taxes (he proposed a $500,000 minimum income level for tax hikes when President Obama was pushing $250,000) and by joining the No Labels group in advocating for, among other things, withholding Congress members' pay when they don't pass a budget.
His number-one focus has been to boost business and jobs in the 21st District: from farms to small mom-and-pop shops to manufacturers to connections across the border with Canada. In doing so, his political party has been mostly irrelevant. It's been more a matter of showing up and speaking up, and he's done both.
Mostly, though, Rep. Owens has been a leader in the friendly and civil way he deals with people. That diplomacy goes a long way toward winning mutual respect. He is savvy but not slick. He's been unafraid to put himself out there in all kinds of public situations and to field all kinds of questions and complaints with calm, respect and quick but careful responses. He makes it look fairly easy.
Yes, he's a lawyer. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that if you're a good one.
Perhaps what's most notable, though, is the fact that he's stepping down, and why.
He insists the reason is to spend more time with his family - not a health concern or imminent scandal or political frustration. Any non-gullible person has to wonder whether he's telling the truth about that, but at this point, there's no evidence it's anything but genuine. Therefore, we'll take him at his word.
People were shocked by the announcement. It's a blow for the national Democrats to lose a strong representative who's held onto a majority-Republican district. Rep. Owens left plenty of time, though, for some other Democrat to go up against the three Republicans vying for their party's nomination.
The more we think about it, stepping down when he and his wife Jane decide they're ready - not at the convenience of his party but with accommodations for them - seems like something Bill Owens would do. We know plenty of career politicians, and Rep. Owens doesn't give off that kind of vibe. His confidence isn't worn on the outside, to show everyone else, but beneath the surface, for him to know and you to find out.
He doesn't need this job the way other politicians do. He doesn't need it for the money or the benefits: He ran for office in his 60s after retiring from the Air Force and securing a comfortable existence as a lawyer. He's on his wife's health insurance. He can walk away any time. Now he's proved it.
We could use a few more representatives like that.
Thanks, Bill. We're grateful for your service.