Rep. Niki Tsongas (D)
Massachusetts 5th District
The Merrimack River Valley at the northern edge of Massachusetts has had an erratic history: High-tech boom, bust, boom, bust, boom. When Massachusetts was a kind of maritime republic in the 19th century, with its farmers struggling to scratch out a living from the stony soil, a few clever Yankees used their profits from the sea trade to try to tame the rapidly flowing Merrimack and build cotton-spinning mills. Creating the cities of Lowell and Lawrence, they built model dormitories and recreation programs for their female workers. This was the center of America’s textile industry for more than a century, long after the maritime industry faded. But in the 1920s, the price of labor rose and newly built mills in the Carolinas, much closer to the cotton supply, decimated the industry that Lawrence and Lowell built. Many residents, by then rather elderly, waited forlornly for an upturn in the local economy.
2008 Presidential Vote
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It came eventually, largely from an unexpected source. High-tech industry drove the growth, beginning in the 1960s around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then moving out to the Route 128 ring road and eventually to Interstate 495, which passes through Lowell and Lawrence. Wang, headquartered in Lowell, grew spectacularly, and Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas—the local kid who made it big before his early death to cancer—spearheaded a national historic restoration of the old mill area. This was the Massachusetts miracle of the 1980s. Then came the bust: Sales of Wang’s word processors and minicomputers slumped as businesses purchased personal computers and linked them together in networks. But Lowell revived again. Its new immigrants provide vitality and entrepreneurial creativity. Cambodians own many small businesses and are nearly one-fifth of the local population, making Lowell second only to Long Beach, Calif. as a home for transplanted Cambodians in the United States. The first Spanish-language daily newspaper in New England began here in September 2008. The old Wang buildings are filled with health care, banking, telecommunications, and Internet companies, plus fledgling green-energy industries. Old mills have been converted to artists’ lofts and upscale condos. The Tsongas Arena is home to a professional hockey team.
The 5th Congressional District of Massachusetts includes Lawrence and Lowell, which, along with a handful of nearby towns, account for about two-thirds of the district’s population. The remainder of the district is the high-tech corridor south along I-495. The district also includes the tony suburbs near the Revolutionary War battleground of Concord, where the Minutemen stood their ground in 1775; the mountains along the New Hampshire state line; and the small towns west of Lowell. Fort Devens, which closed in 1996, is now a training site for members of the New England Army Reserve and National Guard. Except for Lowell and Lawrence, the district is ancestrally Yankee Republican. It is culturally liberal, with pockets of big wealth, and it trended Democratic in the early 1970s. Back then, the 5th District produced two Democratic candidates who would later run for president: Tsongas and John Kerry. In the 1980s and early 1990s, amid the high-tech boom, it went Republican in national and some statewide elections. In 1992, it gave Bill Clinton his lowest percentage in the state, while a big portion of the vote went to high-tech pioneer Ross Perot, the Texan who formed his own political party. But its cultural liberalism has moved it toward the Democrats, though not as far as some Massachusetts districts: Al Gore carried the 5th District 57%-36% in 2000, Kerry 57%-41% in 2004, and Barack Obama 59%-39% in 2008.
Rep. Niki Tsongas (D)
Elected: Oct. 2007, 1st full term.
Born: April 26, 1946, Chico, CA .
Education: Attended MI St. U., Smith Col., B.A. 1968, Boston U., J.D. 1988.
Family: Widowed; 3 children.
Professional Career: Social worker; Practicing attorney; Dean of external affairs, Middlesex Comm. Col., 1997-2007.
The congresswoman from the 5th District is Niki Tsongas, a Democrat who won the seat in a 2007 special election. She is the widow of Paul Tsongas and a political force in her own right. Growing up in an Air Force family, Niki Tsongas (SONG-us) never had a place to call home thanks to her father’s frequent moves. While interning in Washington, D.C., during college, she was invited to a party where she met her future husband, who was an intern for 5th District Republican Rep. Brad Morse. On one of their early dates, he told her of his plans to get involved in electoral politics by running for the Lowell City Council. Inspired by his vision and vigor for local politics, Niki followed him to Lowell in 1968 to help with his successful campaign for city councilor. They were married soon after. Tsongas stumped for her husband several times during his various campaigns for office. “I couldn’t have run for office if I hadn’t spent time campaigning on my own,” she recounted. Paul was first elected to the U.S. House in 1974 and to the U.S. Senate four years later. After retiring in 1984 with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he regained his health and launched a campaign for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Although he won the New Hampshire primary, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s surprise second-place finish in the Granite State gave him the momentum to overtake Tsongas, who withdrew in March 1992 after defeats in the Illinois and Michigan primaries. The Tsongases moved back to Lowell, and soon thereafter Paul’s cancer returned. He succumbed to the disease in 1997.
|Niki Tsongas (D)||225,947||(99%)||($3,287,403)|
|Niki Tsongas (D)||Unopposed|
|Niki Tsongas (D)||54,359||(51%)|
|Jim Ogonowski (R)||47,782||(45%)|
|Patrick Murphy (I)||2,175||(2%)|
|Niki Tsongas (D)||19,821||(36%)|
|Eileen Donoghue (D)||17,385||(31%)|
|James Eldridge (D)||8,042||(14%)|
|Barry Finegold (D)||6,999||(13%)|
|James Miceli (D)||3,297||(6%)|
While acting as a political adviser to her husband, Tsongas started the first all-woman law firm in Lowell, raised their three daughters, and eventually took a job at Middlesex Community College as the dean of external affairs. When Democratic Rep. Marty Meehan retired in July 2007 to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts (Lowell), Tsongas said she wanted the chance to give back to the community that had welcomed her nearly 40 years earlier. Noting that Massachusetts had not had a female House member in more than 25 years, Tsongas was also motivated by what she saw as the need for change in Washington and her strong disagreement with the Bush administration on the Iraq war. Facing four other Democrats in a September primary, she was the early favorite and had endorsements from influential Democratic Rep. Barney Frank and Kitty Dukakis, the wife of former Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Her most formidable challenge came from former Lowell Mayor Eileen Donoghue. Tsongas drew heavily on her ties to Lowell and emphasized her husband’s years representing the district, but she erred during a debate in saying she spent 10 years in Washington representing the 5th District, a statement that actually described her husband’s career. Tsongas’s opponents seized on the comment to highlight her lack of elective experience and criticized her for moving away from Lowell to nearby Charlestown. Tsongas said she moved to be closer to her daughters, who were attending college in Boston. Donoghue also attacked Tsongas for accepting campaign money from outside the district while emphasizing her own local ties to the city. But Tsongas edged out Donoghue, 36% to 31%. Tsongas lost nearly 2-to-1 in Lowell but won most of the other towns.
In the general election, Tsongas faced a Republican with an intensely personal story and a recognizable name in the district. Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Ogonowski’s brother, John, was the pilot of the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on September 11. One of his ads featured John’s widow, Margaret, extolling Jim’s character and talking about how much he helped their family in the aftermath. Each candidate sought to wrap the Bush administration around the other. Ogonowski criticized Tsongas for supporting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, which Bush favored. Tsongas attacked Ogonowski for not supporting the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, then up for renewal in Congress. Both national parties spent heavily on the race, and EMILY’s List backed Tsongas in the primary and general elections. Bill Clinton drew a crowd of several thousand during a campaign stop in her behalf. Sen. Edward Kennedy and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also made appearances. Tsongas’s victory was surprisingly close, 51%-45%. Ogonowski won 11 towns, mostly in the northern part of the district. Tsongas handily took Lowell and Lawrence, plus the area closer to Boston.
In the House, Tsongas traveled with a bipartisan delegation to Iraq and Afghanistan in January 2008, and sponsored a bill in February to begin withdrawing troops in 90 days while simultaneously creating an international agency to promote safety and economic stability in the region. On the Armed Services Committee, she pushed for reductions of U.S. forces in Iraq. During the Democratic presidential primaries, she criticized both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for failing to offer a strategy for the nation’s cities. After her own tough contests a year earlier, she was re-elected without opposition. While setting up her office at the outset of her first term, Tsongas got a sentimental reminder of her late husband: Her House phone numbers had been his. “I think he’d be proud of me,” she said.