N.Y. Dems turn to lawyer for McHugh seat

New York Democrats have anointed attorney and Air Force veteran Bill Owens as their candidate to replace Army Secretary John McHugh.

County chairmen in the upstate 23rd district, which borders Canada and Vermont, portrayed Owens as a public servant who has created jobs in New York. He will face Republican Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, who was chosen last month as the GOP's standard-bearer for the seat.

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"Bill Owens has devoted his career to serving our country and helping create jobs in New York, and in Congress he will use his experience to get our economy moving again and create jobs," the county chairmen said.

Owens himself cited his work creating the Plattsburgh Airbase Redevelopment Corp. — known as PARC — as his key qualification.

The Democratic pick will pit a non-politician against a Republican incumbent in the State Assembly for the second time in the Empire State this year. Earlier, Rep. Scott Murphy (D), a venture capitalist with no experience in elective office, defeated state Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (R) in the 20th district, just south of the 23rd.

Already, Owens strove to emulate Murphy, who ran his campaign based largely on support for President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan and distanced himself from traditional politics, all while associating himself with a president whose approval ratings were sky-high.

"I’m not a career politician. I’m a veteran who proudly served my country in the Air Force and I have demonstrated the same commitment to bringing jobs to our community," Owens said in a statement.

But this time, Republicans likely hold an advantage. Whereas Murphy won a district that had been held by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) before she was elevated to the upper chamber, Owens will run for a seat that has evaded Democratic control for decades.

Republicans also selected a centrist candidate, one who may be able to appeal to independent voters better than Tedisco was able to. GOP strategists also point out that the climate, and Obama's approval ratings, are not what they once were.

The district will no doubt be competitive when Gov. David Paterson (D) sets a date for the special election to replace McHugh. While Republicans enjoyed a nearly 64,000-person advantage among active registered voters in Murphy's district — a fact much ballyhooed by national Democrats, even though Obama won the seat by a 51-48 percent margin — the GOP has a 45,000-person advantage among active voters in the 23rd district. Obama beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the seat by a 52-47 percent margin.

National Republicans wasted little time jumping to the defense of their candidate; National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spokesman Paul Lindsay characterized Owens as likely to "distort" Scozzafava's record and promised a fight made fair by the NRCC's resources.

"We are prepared to assist Dede in whatever capacity we can to fight against the false attacks and personal smears that have already been spread by her opponents," Lindsay said. "Voters in central and northern New York are looking for a common-sense leader who can work across party lines to better their communities, and Dede is the only candidate in this race who has a record of doing just that."