On the day outgoing U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, was in Glens Falls to talk exports, he said he’s throwing his support behind an import to replace him in Congress.
Later in the week, Owens announced his support for Democrat Aaron Woolf in the race to replace him in the 21st District.
“I’m going to be traveling with Mr. Woolf later this week, and I expect I will be providing him with an endorsement,” Owens said after meeting with Scott Schwartz, president of Hill Electric Supply Co. Inc., to discuss export opportunities for local businesses.
Owens and Woolf toured the district Thursday.
“I will certainly be involved in introducing him around and talking to him about the issues — how I see them and how they should be addressed,” the congressman said of the candidate earlier in the week,
Woolf may need the introductions. Like the Republican party-backed candidate, Elise Stefanik, Woolf does not live full time in the district — or at least didn’t.
Stefanik lists her address as Willlsboro, although she works in Albany County. Woolf claims Elizabethtown, although he only recently changed his voter registration from Brooklyn.
The 21st Congressional District covers all or parts of 12 counties, including Saratoga and Fulton.
Both Woolf and Stefanik are expected to face primary opponents. Democrat Stephen Burke, a Macomb town councilman, and Republican Matt Doheny are also seeking nominations.
There is a long history of candidates relocating to run in elections, from Robert Kennedy and Hillary Clinton (New York transplants) to Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator now running for the Senate from New Hampshire.
In the 21st, Owens said the residency issue will likely be raised, at least through primary season.
“The question ultimately, though, is how much knowledge does a candidate have about the district and the issues,” Owens said. “That will offset any issues over whether they are a longtime resident.”
The congressman said the fact that both the Democratic and Republican front-runners face residency questions will somewhat mute the issue. Owens then questioned whether it should be an issue at all.
“I’m not sure that it should be. The important part is are the individuals working to learn the issues, and that solutions they are offering are in fact the kind of things the people of this district believe should be enacted,” he said.
That was not the case of longtime Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, who lost a Republican primary in 2012 after reports surfaced he hadn’t actually lived in the state for decades. Still, the question of residency is more of a political than legal one. Article I Section 2 of the Constitution clearly states:
“No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.”
Inhabitant has been construed very loosely, and since a candidate isn’t even mandated to live in the district where they are running, the statute “is functionally meaningless,” according to Paul Finkelman, professor of law and public policy and a senior fellow at the Government Law Center at Albany Law School.
“It doesn’t matter — it’s so easy to gain residency,” said Finkelman, currently serving as a visiting professor at Louisiana State University. He added the question is a “completely political one.”
Efforts to reach the Woolf and Stefanik campaigns were unsuccessful.
When asked about not defending the former 23rd Congressional District seat he’s occupied since 2009, Owens said, “I decided it’s time to spend more time with my family” — a common refrain among politicians, but one that is more believable given the logistics of the sprawling 21st Congressional District. It covers roughly 16,000 square miles — larger than nine states, and Massachusetts and New Jersey combined.
“It’s not uncommon for me to be on the road seven hours in a day to do three hours of meetings,” Owens said. “It’s a lot of real estate to cover.”