N.Y. Democrat Wins House Seat on Opposition to Democrats' 'Public Option'

By Fred Lucas | November 4, 2009 | 6:00 PM EST

Bill Owens, the Democratic candidate running in New York's 23rd Congressional District, leaves the voting booth after voting in Plattsburgh, N.Y., Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

(CNSNews.com) – Democrats on Wednesday welcomed the surprise win of Democratic candidate Bill Owens in New York’s 23rd Congressional District , but throughout his campaign, Owens at best has hedged on whether he supports a government-run health insurance plan – a key element of the Democratic health care plan being debated in Congress.
Owens – who was a registered independent when Democratic officials nominated him in August to run for Congress in the traditionally Republican district – is quoted or paraphrased in numerous press accounts as saying he opposed the government-run plan, which Democrats call "the public option."
As the election grew closer, Owens said the idea was “reasonable,” while still expressing concerns about other provisions in the Democratic health care bill.
The New York Observer, a liberal weekly, reported on Aug. 11 that “Owens took a decidedly moderate line on health care restructuring, saying he does not support a public option available to anyone – the crux of the restructuring put forward by President Obama."
“It changes every day, the various iterations,” Owens told the Observer, in a story headlined, “Meet Bill Owens, a DCC-Approved Non-Democrat for the House.”
“The bill that I would vote for would have a couple of elements to it,” Owens continued. “It would cover the uninsured, it would eliminate the ability to exclude for pre-existing condition and also that focuses on cost reduction.”
National Journal’s Hotline reported on Aug. 13 that of the 10 Democrats interviewed by party leaders to run for the House seat, Owens was the only one who did not support a public option. The piece was headlined, “He’s Just Not that Indie You.”
The Owens statements against the public option prompted excitement from the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“This is proof-positive that the Democrats’ health care takeover is a political loser even in Blue America,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain told Politico after Owens’ comment. “The only remaining question is whether [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi will call him ‘un-American’ for siding with public opinion.”
Owens defeated Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman Tuesday. The Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava dropped out the previous weekend after polls showed she was too far behind to win and endorsed Owens.
Still Hoffman took the lead in most polls. So the Owens win of 49 percent to Hoffman’s 46 percent was a surprise to conservatives and a big boost for otherwise disparaged Democrats.
Still, some analysts believe the big wins in gubernatorial races by Republicans Chris Christie in New Jersey and Bob McDonnell in Virginia could make centrist Democrats nervous about voting for the health care overhaul bills backed by President Obama and congressional Democrats.
Owens appears to be a centrist Democrat, according to most press reports. For instance, an Oct. 13 article in Roll Call said, “Owens, who is not insisting on a public option in the health care reform bill and does not support gay marriage, is a registered independent.”
Owens’ staff could not be reached for comment Wednesday after CNSNews.com called both his campaign headquarters and a field office.
Speaking to supporters Wednesday in Plattsburgh, N.Y., Owens expressed support for health care, but gave few indications of what he would support.
“I began this campaign to bring a new kind of leadership to Washington – one that focuses on finding the commonsense solutions we need right now. As I go forward now to Washington, I’m going to work with Republicans, Democrats, and independents to do just that so we can,” he named off a number of issues before saying “fight for health care reform, so that our middle class families have quality, affordable care and our businesses can become more competitive in the global economy.”
His campaign Web site says Owens supports “controlling health care costs for the middle class,” and “providing access to affordable health insurance for every American,” among other initiatives. But, the site makes no mention of a “public option.”
Though Owens is the only Democrat getting national attention, he was not the only Democratic winner. In another lower profile special election for a House seat, California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a Democrat, beat the unknown Republican David Harmer to win California’s 10th Congressional District seat.
Garamendi is a strong supporter of a public option, but his victory was expected and thus drew little attention.
In an Oct. 11 story in the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times, Owens avoided taking a clear stance on whether he supported the government-run insurance in a story headlined, “Public Option Skirted in Race.”
The story said Owens, “repeatedly declined to say whether he supports a public option to ensure that everyone is covered, or a government mandate that everyone have insurance.”
“I’m always going to be judging it upon those criteria,” Owens said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we must move forward on health care reform.”
Owens changed course in a debate between the three candidates held on WSYR, the ABC affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y. on Oct. 28, as he seemed more open to the idea.
Asked about the government plan in legislation being considered in the House, he said, “I think the type or the form of the public option included in this bill is reasonable. It is not one that allows people to move to the government option if they already have health insurance coverage. So it’s going to control a significant segment of the population.”
But he went on to say he was concerned about regulations the bill imposes on small business.
In its Oct. 29 endorsement of Owens, The Post-Standard of Syracuse, N.Y., said, “While generally endorsing the Obama health care overhaul, he hedged on the public option.”