Bill Owens talks retirement, politics, future

U.S. Rep. Bill Owens says he is as busy as ever.

The Democrat from Plattsburgh decided to retire back in January to spend more time with his family. Since then, the race to replace him has overshadowed the congressman.

In the House, he had a hand in a few high-stakes pieces of legislation recently and is pushing for another he co-sponsored. Though Owens isn’t campaigning for office, he has been traveling New York’s 21st Congressional District often with the Democratic congressional candidate seeking to replace him, Aaron Woolf.

“The only thing I’m not doing is campaigning, but doing the job day to day, hour to hour, I’m working just as hard as I did two years ago,” Owens told the Enterprise in a phone interview.

Five months is all that remains of his term, which ends on Jan. 2.

“You know, I think you never feel the impact,” he said of retirement. “That won’t happen until after the election, but I’m continuing to do my job. I have a pretty full schedule in August.”

He recently co-sponsored the Veterans’ Assistance to Lower Unemployment and Enhance Veteran Affairs Services Act, known as the VALUES Act. The bill aims to increase employment for veterans returning home from combat by giving them preference in employment at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I think the idea behind the VALUES Act is to put people in the VA who share the values of the veterans,” said Owens, an Air Force veteran. “I think that is of critical importance. When an experience is described, the person can relate to it. I think that makes them better able to assist veterans.”

Owens also voted in favor of the $16.3 billion VA reform bill, which attempts to correct problems with the department that surfaced this spring, when the media reported veterans had died while waiting for care at VA health facilities. The VA allegedly falsified data to hide long wait times for veterans seeking health care. U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki resigned as a result of the news.

Will the reform bill renew confidence in the VA?

“Clearly I think two things happened in the VA: One is the confirmation of the new secretary, and the passage of the VA reform bill,” Owens said. “We won’t know for several months if confidence is restored.”

Owens said he is continuing to work on the priorities that he began focusing on four years ago, like economic development, employment, immigration reform and United States-Canadian border relations.

A lawyer, Owens used to be a partner at the Stafford, Owens, Curtin & Trombley firm in Plattsburgh. (Editor’s note: This sentence has been corrected.) The Enterprise asked Owens what his job and family plans are for the future.

“Well, I think, number one, just being home with my wife and son, who lives in Plattsburgh with his wife,” Owens said.

He will also have time to travel and see his other children out of state, something that is difficult with his current congressional schedule.

Where will he travel?

“A number of places in the United States, national parks out west, Florida a little more in the wintertime,” he said. “At home in the summer I like to bike, road bike, mountain bike, kayak.”

A couple of months ago, he had a taste of retirement when he kayaked with his family on Owen Pond near Lake Placid.

“No pun intended,” he said of the pond’s name.

No matter what the future holds, he plans to spend a majority of his time in Plattsburgh with his family and the community.

“I have not really determined precisely what I’m going to do yet, what job or jobs I may take,” he said. “The key here is that I’m home in Plattsburgh.”

What does he feel are his major accomplishments during his career?

A recent legislative accomplishment he noted was his hand in the farm bill, but overall he said his leadership style will be the most important thing he will leave behind in Congress.

“I think the most important thing that I did was really being a centrist, and show people you could function in Congress as a moderate who is unafraid to vote for the other party,” Owens said. “I think leading in that way was very, very important.”