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Former Congressman Bill Owens weighs in on state and federal issues

Bill Owens
photo provided
Bill Owens

Democrat Bill Owens served in the U.S House from 2009 through 2014 representing New York’s current 21st district. He remains a keen observer of political activity in Washington D.C. and Albany. He recently discussed redistricting, inflation and other issues with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley. He began by assessing New York’s redrawn U.S. House maps.

In the aggregate Democrats still have 15 solidly Democratic districts where whoever is the Democratic candidate is going to most likely win. Republicans I think have three of those obviously including our district. Then there's a group of toss up seats and that piece of it really didn't surprise me. But the fact that many people were cut out of their district by very thin lines, for instance Brian Higgins in Buffalo. I mean apparently he's across the street from the line. Right? That doesn't make any sense. You have a number of other people, Paul Tonko, even Elise Stefanik. She no longer resides in the district. Paul doesn't reside in his district. I thought some of those things were very strange. And I read the decision and the Special Master's report and he didn't really give a well reasoned answer to that question.

What do you think the ramifications are for Stefanik and the upcoming election in the new district?

I don't think actually it changes her situation very much. I think the old, the district as drawn by Democrats was very favorable to her. This I think is essentially equally favorable In terms of the "R" rating. What I do think that's changed is the recent attacks that she's absorbed. We have her mentor at Harvard being quoted in The Washington Post saying basically she went to the dark side. Fairly you know dramatic language. This man is a longtime Republican stalwart. Then you have the Lincoln Project going after her. The timing of that seems to be of interest.

Stefanik, from what I understand though, is using a Trumpian response to the Harvard individual saying I never really knew this person well and I haven't talked to him for decades.

Right and everything she does now is MAGA driven. Interestingly enough somebody pointed out to me, a gentleman that I correspond with in D.C. who's a law school professor, that she has switched out her entire staff. Her major staff in D.C. is no longer local people. It is MAGA people. I mean, she's made this huge jump to the extreme right. Which to me a surprise because when she first came into office, as the gentleman from Harvard described her, she was a real bipartisan centerist type person. And then she began to move to the right. That started in her second term. In her first term she was around the middle. Second term moved to the right a bit. Third term way to the right. And she just jumped on the Trump bandwagon and has stayed there.

Stefanik has said that she's proud of being what's called Ultra-MAGA. That's a phrase that's gaining traction, has been for a few months now. How will the Ultra-MAGA stance work for her in New York 21?

Well, it's pretty clear based upon Mr. Trump's polling and voting in '16 and in '20 that the district has moved into I would say a strong, a stronghold for Mr. Trump and his views. So I think it probably plays okay for her. Unless something else were to evolve I don't think it creates a lot of risk. I'm not suggesting that I think it's the right thing to do. I'm just saying I think as a political bit of analysis I don't know that there's great risk.

Some other topics. Everybody is dealing with inflation right now. Any thoughts on what you would do about inflation if you were able to do something about it?

Again, an incredibly complex question. Let's just sort of do a little history. We have a couple of things that I think people don't focus on. One is housing prices went up dramatically. But nobody points to that as a cause of inflation. But it may be the single biggest contributor because the numbers are so dramatic. You have issues related to the supply chain, right. You go into almost any store and there are blanks on the shelves. And that's driving the inflation rate. The cost of transportation of goods also being driven up. Those are things that are happening, if you will, below the radar, or people aren't focused on them. So I think until you can get the supply chain functioning again you're not going to be able to bring down inflation. The other factor that's there that I find is very interesting is wages have gone up dramatically. In many cases the most in 10 - 15 years, right? That's also inflationary. So you've got a lot of factors that aren't really controllable by the government. They're just not. So it is a complex piece. And, you know, unfortunately it's happening in President Biden's term and he's going to get tagged with it.

How much can the Biden administration actually do about all of these inflationary pressures when it's actually global?

That's a very good observation and I think they have very little that they can do, again, until the supply chain straightens its itself out. And now you have the situation in China where they're starting to see unemployment rise. They're starting to see stagnation in their economy. And if they stopped producing, it's going to drive inflation even harder.

If things remain the same will President Biden be the best option in 2024?

Well, one of the interesting things if you listen to people on the other side of the aisle, including our Congresswoman, I have not heard a proposal to deal with inflation. There's a lot of name calling and a lot of statements that are not backed up with any facts. But there's no reasoned respond to that says well I think if you did these three things you would get a reduction in inflation. I think they recognize that there is no cure at this point. And I didn't offer any solutions either. I just made observations about what I see as the issue. And it's just it's simply going to take time. I think that we're probably a year out from solving the supply chain issues.

What does that mean for the midterm elections?

It's not good. It's not a good scenario. So I think that for Democrats, they have to, they need to turn to the pocketbook issues and you know be offering solutions. Things like reinstituting the child credit. That was very helpful to low income families. Now that's also an inflationary factor. Right. I think what Powell is doing reducing the purchase of bonds by the Fed will also help because you're reducing the money supply. And that should also help somewhat so that the money supply is more tightly tied to productivity. And that's an area where you may be able to get some reduction in inflation. But those are all things that are really outside the control of the government. And you have to have people willing to do those things and it's not clear to me that people are willing to do that. But most importantly I haven't heard a plan from anybody.

Have you ever sat back and regretted leaving the House, not being there giving your thoughts and perspectives?

If I thought that people would listen I'd have regret. But one of the factors there is that if you are a moderate, the number of moderates have dropped off the table. There's maybe 20 people who fit in that category now. When I got there, there was 150. That would make your voice a very lonely voice. And I'm relatively convinced that even though people talk about wanting to have moderates, that's not what they really want. They want somebody who's going to, you know, dramatically espouse their positions. And I don't think in many cases that gets you to a good result.

Our conversation with former Democratic Congressman Bill Owens was recorded before the school shooting in Texas.

Owens is a regular commentator for WAMC. He is a partner at the legal firm Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, Kelleher and Trombley in Plattsburgh, N..Y and a Strategic Advisor at Dentons in Washington, D.C.