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Rep. Owens’s announcement leaves potential successors scrambling

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The suddenness of Rep. William L. Owens’s announcement Tuesday that he will not seek re-election has left previously declared and potential candidates trying to figure out what it means in the race for New York’s 21st Congressional District.

“It certainly turns everything around,” Douglas L. Hoffman, who has twice run for the seat unsuccessfully as a Conservative, said. “It’s certainly not what anybody expected.”

Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said he will not seek re-election to the seat he first won in a special election in 2009 and then twice more, citing a desire to spend more time with his family and pursue “new endeavors.”

Three Republicans have already announced their intention to run for New York’s 21st Congressional District: Joseph M. Gilbert, an Army veteran and former St. Lawrence County emergency services director; Elise M. Stefanik, a Willsboro businesswoman with experience working in the White House and on prominent Republican political campaigns; and broadcast engineer and computer consultant Michael F. Ring, Adams Center, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

“I think the Democrats realize the baggage Bill Owens was carrying because of his voting record on policies like Obamacare and they have finally realized the conservative nature of the 21st District of New York,” said Mr. Gilbert, who declared his candidacy in August.

Mr. Gilbert said he thought his prospects for winning the district have improved with Mr. Owens out of the race but acknowledged that he still had a lot of work to do in terms of fund raising. He said that he and his supporters would be making some “major fund-raising initiatives and pushes” beginning this week, though he also said that his team was “still putting the exact package together.”

Mr. Gilbert read Mr. Owens announcement as a clear referendum on the Washington, D.C. “status quo” and pitched himself as the clear alternative to the establishment. He also said that he, as director of emergency management, was the only candidate who had been able to reduce government spending by shrinking his department’s budget.

Ms. Stefanik, in a statement, thanked Mr. Owens for his many years of public service, wishing him and his family well “as they begin a new chapter of their lives.

“We are in a great position to win this seat back and bring new ideas and new leadership to the 21st Congressional District,” she said. “I will continue traveling throughout the district and working to earn the endorsement of the remaining county GOP committees, and seeking the support of Republicans, Conservatives and Independents in the North Country, to bring new ideas and new leadership to Congress on behalf of residents of Upstate New York.”

Mr. Hoffman, a Lake Placid accountant, did not rule out a possible third run, but said the news of Mr. Owen’s retirement was still too new Tuesday afternoon for any definitive decision.

“Although Bill and I had different political views and philosophies, I have always admired and respected Bill,” Mr. Hoffman said. “I wish him well in retirement or in whatever endeavors he pursues after his term is up.”

Darrel J. Aubertine, former commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, said Mr. Owens had done a great job for the region.

“He’s been an advocate for small business, he’s been an advocate for health care, he’s been an advocate for farms,” he said. “Given the conditions in Washington, he’s done a good job.”

Mr. Aubertine, who has also served in the state Assembly and Senate, was noncommittal about whether he would run for Mr. Owens’ seat.

“I wouldn’t discount the opportunity to serve given the opportunity to serve,” he said.

However, he said he had a lot of considerations he would weigh before making a run, such as current commitments and the feedback of his family. He did not give himself a timetable for making a decision.

“At the end of the day, any decision like this isn’t something that should be rushed into,” Mr. Aubertine said. “I wouldn’t rush into this without giving it my full consideration.”

State Sen. Elizabeth O’C. “Betty” Little, R-Queensbury, whose Senate district includes portions of St. Lawrence County, said she is focusing on her Senate responsibilities and a re-election bid, but added that Mr. Owens’s announcement was “certainly a surprise” as she enjoyed working with him. She, too, did not rule out a run for the Congressional seat.

“I’m not closing the door to running,” she said. “I think it’s a decision that’s going to take some time because there is a lot to consider.”

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, described Mr. Owens’s announcement as “bittersweet. He’s been very effective for us, and I’m very sad to see him leaving,” she said.

Mrs. Russell said she will explore running for Mr. Owens’s seat, but has not made any final decisions about running, adding she was very happy serving in the state Assembly.

“This certainly does present an opportunity, one I will evaluate, but at this point I’m not sure I can say one way or another if I will,” she said.

Two potential high-profile candidates could not be reached comment Tuesday regarding their intentions. Dierdre K. Scozzafava, deputy secretary of state for local government and former 122nd District assemblywoman from Gouverneur, entered the 2009 special election race to succeed fellow Republican John M. McHugh, but later dropped out, endorsing Mr. Owens. Republican Matthew A. Doheny, Watertown, lost closely contested races to Mr. Owens in 2010 and 2012.

Like others, Watertown Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham was surprised by Mr. Owens’ announcement, especially since the congressman was in Watertown just two months ago for a town hall meeting and told the audience he was definitely going to run.

He surmised that maybe Mr. Owens already has a position lined up, possibly with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s or President Obama’s administrations, so he decided not to seek re-election.

Mr. Graham — who said it would take someone to approach him to run for him to throw his hat in the ring — thought that potential candidates from the eastern side of the district, in such counties as Saratoga, Washington and Warren counties, would have an advantage because “that’s where the money is.” It would take somebody who could put together a lot of money together quickly, he said.

John T. Sullivan Jr., who sought the 21st district Democratic nomination in 2009 against Mr. Owens, praised the congressman.

“Bill Owens shattered the glass ceiling for Democrats in Northern New York by winning the previously rock ribbed Republican seat three times,” Mr. Sullivan said in an email to the Times.“He is certainly a trailblazer in the annals of North Country Politics, and has done much to further the economic well being of the region. I wish him well in his decision to retire.”

Mr. Sullivan is the former mayor of Oswego, and former assistant attorney general for Northern New York in Watertown whonow lives in Saratoga Springs.

Jefferson County Democratic Committee Chairman Ronald H. Cole said he was surprised when he first heard the news Tuesday, as he and Mr. Owens were talking recently about Mr. Owens’s push to pass a new Farm Bill.

“He’s been a hard-working congressman,” he said. “There’s not many who have done more for this district than he has.”

Mr. Cole said he had not had a chance Tuesday to look into potential new candidates to run for the seat, but expressed confidence in their ability to find a high quality candidate, even if the person did not have a high level of name recognition.

“Bill came out of nowhere and was selected by the party and won,” Mr. Cole said. “He was not a name that was on everybody’s tongue when he was picked to run.”

St. Lawrence County Democratic Committee Chairman Mark J. Bellardini said he looked forward to meeting with other county party chairs to coordinate a course of action that will keep them on the same page.

Times staff writers Daniel Flatley, Gordon Block and Craig Fox contributed to this report.

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